The problem with being optimistic about life

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

Plans, as the saying goes, are what men make while the Gods laugh.But of course we make them anyway. Because a life without a future, even only an imagined one, isn’t much of a life.

Yet when reality crashes headlong into our plans, it is deeply disturbing. Grief, loss, unexpected health changes: we don’t plan for these.

Most of us see our future rolled out before us like a straight road that travels uninterrupted to the horizon. And for most of us, this isn’t how it will work out.

One of the more brain-bending pieces of research I remember from my undergraduate psychology days was a study that showed that people who were currently depressed perceived reality more accurately than those who aren’t.

Optimism, it turns out is a form of delusion. It’s the hopeful ones that are actually out of touch with reality.

But this is how it should be. The truth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and certainly spending a lot of time thinking about what is going to happen, how long we will live, the fragile nature of our existence, isn’t necessarily a recipe for good mental health.

So we plan, we hope and we pretend everything will be OK. Because we all live in a healthy state of denial.

And when that fails, we ascribe intention to random fate. We shake our fists at the Gods, we describe the Universe as heartless, fate as cruel. We search for why, and understandably struggle when there is no meaning: when reality is so fundamentally indifferent.

Irvin Yalom, one of the big names in modern psychotherapy began his career working with those who had received a terminal diagnosis, and wrote extensively about the psychological changes that happen for those confronting the end of their lives.

This often includes a clearer view of life than the rest of us are afforded, and relief from all sorts of psychological distress.

And for most, it makes clear what is really important, and where meaning truly lies.

Yalom wondered if he could provoke the same clarity of sight in those in their prime of health, and would routinely ask physically healthy patients to contemplate how they would choose to live their life now if they knew they only had a year to live.

What comes most acutely into focus for most, is the people we care about and the connections we have with those we love.

Because no matter how long we have, and the reality is none of us really know, we always have now.

So, by all means, make plans – make bold and audacious plans.

But don’t hold them too tightly, and instead, save that for the ones you love.

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