Acknowledging Problems Can Make You Optimistic

Sound economic reasoning begins with the acknowledgement of scarcity. Before we can think intelligently about the incentives that drive human action and the ways in which resources should/could be allocated, we have to start by getting clear on the stark reality of human finitude.

At any given moment in time, we only have access to a finite amount of time, energy, ability, or goods.

Plainly put, you can’t be everywhere at once. You can’t do everything at the same time, and you can’t have everything you desire at any time.

If this were not true, there would be no need for economic reasoning. We could all simply have whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted it, in whatever quantity desired without any sacrifice or costs ever being involved.

The basic fact of scarcity is what forces us to be resourceful. Scarcity doesn’t exist because we are resourceful. We are resourceful because scarcity exist.

The same fundamental fact of scarcity that makes economic reasoning necessary is also what serves as the basis for optimistic thinking. That is, optimistic thinking is only necessary and beneficial precisely because we live in a world where it is impossible to get our way most of the time. The finitude of the human condition makes it inevitable that we’ll sometimes feel frustrated and pushed around by conditions that refuse to accommodate our preferences.

When people typically think of optimism, they think of someone who lives in denial of life’s harshest realities. The pessimist, in most people’s minds, is the one who says “life sucks” while the optimist is envisioned as the one who affirms “life is great.” This is a flawed perception in my opinion. I believe the best kinds of optimists are the ones who are highly conscious of the existence of hardship.

Just as a good economist bases his understanding of the world on the observation that scarcity exists, the optimist bases his understanding of the world on the observation that the frustration of desire is fundamental to human experience.

If there were no problems and creative challenges, there would be no reason for optimism. Everyone would get exactly what they wanted and there would be no need for anyone to ever encourage another person to look on the bright side, keep your head up, take it on the chin, or hang in there. The world would just be filled with a bunch of satisfied individuals.

We clearly don’t live in a world where life cooperates with us most of the time. In fact, when we’re not busy trying to be optimistic, it’s pretty clear to most of us that life stinks at least some of the time. This basic concession is the foundation for an optimistic life. If you deny problems, then you deny the need to form constructive responses to problems. And transformation, evolution, and revolution are always the result of forming constructive responses to problems.

If you want to be a good optimist, you have to accept the reality of scarcity and frustrated desire. You have to live with an expectation that tragedy, doom, and gloom will visit all of us in some shape, form, or capacity. It’s the people who don’t accept this that are shocked, stupefied, and paralyzed when life throws them curveballs. They spend most of their time and energy resenting reality or naively waiting for the world to conform to their expectations. The optimist, having accepted the implications of scarcity, is capable of moving on to the only question that matters when desires are frustrated: am I going to do something about it or am I just going to wallow in my dissatisfaction?

To be an optimist is to be someone who commits to doing something about it. The optimist isn’t necessarily happier than anyone else. The optimist isn’t necessarily more satisfied than anyone else. The optimist isn’t necessarily more or less concerned about problems than anyone else. The optimist is who he or she is simply by virtue of their willingness to exercise determination in the face of difficulty.

Acknowledge your problems. Admit your frustrations. Accept your challenges. The more realistic you are about how much life stinks, the more quickly you can get rid of your illusion that life is going to become beautiful for some reason other than your determination to adapt and evolve.