No difference between optimism and stupidity?

February 17, 2010 · 22 comments

I love that people use optimism to excuse stupidity. I try to avoid being labeled a pessimist or an optimist. I much rather prefer to associate with the realists. I do consider myself a positive realist, which in my opinion, is significantly different than an optimist.

Wikipedia defines an optimist as one who generally believes that people and events are inherently good. While I would love to be able to assume most people and events are “inherently good”, I’m gonna have to keep it real and disagree. I’m pretty sure there is nothing good about terrorism, Hitler, country music, Detroit, and this guys shorts…

Did you just throw up in your mouth a little after sneaking a peek at that picture? My apologies, but I couldn’t resist.

I get really frustrated when people make stupid decisions because they have “faith” everything will work out in the end. I bet we know plenty of people that live paycheck to paycheck by choice. They spend every dollar they earn on frivolous things like $300 bar tabs, flat screen TV’s, video games, etc because they know their next paycheck can get them through the upcoming month. They use their optimism (believing that their next paycheck is an absolute) as an excuse to do financially stupid things (not establish an emergency fund). Guess what buddy, if that paycheck doesn’t come, YOU ARE SCREWED!

I’ve got news for the overly optimistic: Rainy days lie ahead, bad things are going to happen to you, and…gasp… sometimes life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY and I hate negative people, but I get sick of people that hope for the best, only to find themselves royally screwed when things didn’t work out the way they planned. I believe you should hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Sure I plan on having a job next month, but if for some reason the crap hits the fan, I have a decent E-fund to help me survive unemployment.

While I like the idea of ending poverty, I’m forced to face the REALITY that I will never live to see the day that happens. No matter how much we attempt to level the playing field, there will ALWAYS be people that squander away everything they have, much like there will always be people that are diligent savers. I’m really not trying to open up a political can of worms with this point, but I get so frustrated when I hear someone say “We need to put an end to poverty and spread the wealth around”. It’s hard to tell someone they are stupid for wanting to end poverty, but when their solution is to further tax the rich, they are just that… stupid. Out of fear of receiving a verbal lynching, I shall end my rant here and open the floor for discussion.

Have you had to deal with some stupidly optimistic people? Do you just bite your tongue and watch them make bad decisions or do you attempt to intervene and share some realistic input? It’s tough to tell someone they are being too positive, but sometimes it’s too important not to!


1 afamilyofgeeks

At the risk of sounding 'anti-religion', I hate the phrase "G-d will provide". I tend to hear it when people are making idiotic financial decisions based solely on their optimism that their faith will make money or opportunities just 'appear'. I'm all for faith that things will work out in the end, but I do believe that G-d/Gaia/Flying Spaghetti Monster/whatever helps those that help themselves, whether that means building a fat savings account before having baby number 2 or making sure you have some passive income and your debts are all settled before heading out on a mission trip.

At the very least, if you take a leap of faith without putting your ducks in a row first, I don't want to hear about it if you fall flat. And for Pete's sake, don't ask me for money. While I do sometimes seem to think that the universe revolves around me, I don't claim to be a deity and don't go bailing out people who didn't look before they leap.

When people start making moronic financial choices, I usually just say nothing and slowly lesson my contact with them. I just know when they start complaining that they're broke I won't be able to resist the urge to tell them exactly why I think they should be shut their pie hole and accept the consequences of their self-made disaster gracefully.

2 Evan

JEBUS (reference anyone?) RIGHT ON AFAMILY!

I read and comment on a lot of blogs daily, and many of them are Christian based (I have no idea why, but that seems to be a huge niche market in the pf blogging world) and you see this stuff in the comments all the time. Actually it is probably the reason that Ninja is talking about it today.

I get so angry! and when it doesn't work out, as it often does not, someone will the comment that it is because they didn't love God enough.

3 psychsarah

I'm married to an eternal optimist. I'm curing him of the stupid part, slowly but surely. His motto in life is "leap and the net will appear". His argument is that things work out in the end, mine is that I'd like to avoid the crippling stress while crossing my fingers that the net, will in fact, appear before I fall flat on my face. This makes for a difference in opinion when it comes to money-like, ugh, why do we have to put all that money into an emergency fund? I stand my ground though, and give him doses of reality from the work I do (rife with examples of the s#it hitting the fan and people losing their homes, not being able to eat etc.).


Ninja –

At the risk of getting political, when people talk about "spreading the wealth around", they don't literally mean we should hand poor people cold hard cash to spend as they choose. They're talking about tax dollars to support social programs in health care, education, job training, etc. – programs that work regardless of someone's socio-economic status, and often benefit the rich as well as the poor.

Also, it's not fair to imply that poverty is caused by poor financial decisions. Yes, by definition, poor people lack money. However, most poor people have not "squander[ed] everything they have," as you said. There are very complex social and economic factors surrounding poverty (both in the US and around the world) that have nothing to do with people buying flat screen TVs. Furthermore, most of the people I know who are making the decisions you talk about are solidly middle class.

With that said – I agree with you in regards to stupidity. Hope/faith is no substitute for planning and preparation. When someone (rich or poor) tells me "God willing…" or "God will provide…" or "Have faith…", I tell them, "God helps those who help themselves."

Leaves them speechless.

5 Anon

I have seen abuses of the government welfare program on the part of 'poor' people that you would not believe. I have seen entire welfare checks squandered on drugs and alcohol. I have seen the children of some of these people sitting dazed in hot boxed apartments. I could go on. I used to think that such occurrences were isolated but, after three years of seeing it over and over and over again, I rethought that opinion. The culture of the poor is indeed highly complex and some would say unresolvable. Let's just say that if you handed a $50 bill to any of the people I dealt with, chances are high that they would not open a savings account at ING. For MOST of them, that's a fact.

6 tom

Detroit in the same category as Hitler and terrorism?

Them's fightin' words.

7 Investing Newbie

I don't see how "hoping for the best but preparing for the worst" is any more "real" than the optimism you rail against. There is no guarentee that bad times WILL come to all people. Just like there is no guarentee that GOOD times are SPARSE.

I think to be realistic you have to just focus on life as it is today without making conjectures about the future. Because the future isn't real. You aren't guarenteed tomorrow of even the next second. But once the future becomes present becomes past, you hope that you have a little more knowledge in which to continue your life. So you are a saver, then save. And if you are a spender, then spend. But since we never fit perfectly in one box, we can be spenders, savers, AND planners.

8 Jonesie

My husband and I have one child and don't plan to have any more. Most of our friends/family ask us when we are going to have another baby. Our response is never, kids are expensive and we're happy with just one. The dumbest response I've ever heard to this is, "If everyone waited until they could afford kids, nobody would have any."

9 afamilyofgeeks

My kid is imaginary then?

10 craig

Too many people don't understand the importance to savings. But if you can afford it, every now and then something for yourself is fine. That video game once every 2 months will be fine.

11 Sandie

My own personal experience is that you have to let people learn for themselves and, sometimes, they never learn. For that reason, I agree with you when you say that it is impossible to level the playing field. There are large numbers of the population out there who will always spend every cent that comes their way on booze, drugs, food, etc. They will spend that money even at risk of losing the roof over their heads, which they often do. Overly taxing the rich to spread the wealth to the poor is a losing proposition. I realize that's a generalized statement but I have seen enough of it in action to know what I'm talking about.

I was one of 'those people' myself once in the sense that I spent away hundreds of thousands of dollars on BS. I spent every cent I earned (which was a lot) on BS consumerism, having the latest and greatest stuff, eating out, new cars every 5 minutes, big houses. Guess what happened? I lost my job. I worked in the financial sector and my job just evaporated overnight along with hundreds of thousands of others when the financial crisis hit. I hadn't saved a GD dime. I wasn't ready for that sudden pink slip.

Suddenly, I had no idea how I was going to pay the mortgage on my McMansion. I couldn't even afford the utility bills and certainly couldn't afford the four cars filling up my garage and, for the first time ever in my life, great financial panic set in. I realized I had a serious psychological problem with money.

What I'm saying is, many people have to literally hit rock bottom to change. It's either that or die and, as
we know, many people do die in the gutter and on the streets. I didn't want to die in destitution so I had to change.

I was once stupidly optimistic and it cost me BIG. I am the complete opposite of that mindset today with a significant net worth thanks to saving and making more intelligent financial decisions. Would a higher tax on the rich have made a difference to me one way or the other back then? No, of course not. There is no cure for stupidity.

12 BakinBaker

1. I agree with afamilyofgeeks about the G-d comments. This is one of the biggest reasons I hate religion. Everyone just expects that if anything happens G-d will fix it.

2. I'm one of those "stupid" people, or at least used to be. I always just assumed that everything would end up working out. Not that we've lost our house or our cars or anything drastic, I am not happy with the fact that we blow thousands of dollars every year on stupid shit and we have nothing to show for it (like an emergency fund or a savings account). I am changing the way I think and the way we approach our finances. I don't expect that it will work out. This month is a prime example: My husband's sales team has hit goal (meaning they get their bonuses) every month for the last 23 months. We depend on that money because it is 1/3 of our income and it is generally a guaranteed check, until now. They're not going to make it unless by a miracle of G-d, which I don't believe in. So? We saved the several thousand dollars that we got back from our return this year, for this exact reason. For the rest of the year, for every bonus, savings comes first then if there's any left when that's done, we can have a little fun, within reason.

3. As for "spreading the wealth" I honestly think that if people are going to receive government aid they should be required to go to financial education / counseling classes no matter what the money is for. I think that if I am helping to pay for people to eat and send their children to daycare they should have to prove that they are spending the money on legitimate things, the things that the money is intended for. Further more, you shouldn't be able to buy alcohol on food stamps (not that I have anything against alcohol because I enjoy it as well) or spend it all on potato chips, candy bars and soda pop. In the USA we have a huge problem with hiding our eyes instead of educating people about how to live responsibly. I don't mind helping people out but they should be accountable.

4. I agree that there will NEVER be an end to poverty. Every culture has had it and it will continue that way, forever. There will never be "peace in the Middle East" no matter how much we want it; it might get better but it will never be over. There will always be racial discrimination on every level, for all races, sexual & age discrimination, abuse, starving children, etc. This goes back to #3: it's all about education and I'm not talking 4 or 6-year plus type education, I'm talking day-to-day living.

13 BRB

The optimistic people don't bother me as much as the people that are just stupid. I'm afraid that the future portrayed in Idiocracy is not too far off from the truth.

14 jp

We’re pretty convinced this is why that movie isn’t as popular as it should be….hits too close to home!

15 Abigail

Okay, I'm just gonna say it: You're talking about stupidity and citing Wikipedia. Does the irony escape everyone else???

Sorry, don't mean to be snarky, but you're literally the second post I've seen referencing Wikipedia. C'mon, folks! Merriam Webster is online too! Or even

To address your question… People are far too optimistic. It's why the stock market has bubbles. Of course, I'm a believer in optimism being a good thing. But people take it too far. I've had total strangers online tell me that I was being negative (about debilitating after-effects of a LIFE-THREATENING neurological condition) and that's why I wasn't getting better. Because, you see, they had broken their back or some other horrible but completely different injury and healed just fine. So clearly it was because i was being negative that i wasn't magically better.

Incidentally, I was being realistic. I was saying that I had some room for improvement but that, by and large, most of my rehabilitating had already happened and I just needed to learn to work within my new boundaries. Damn me and my negative thinking!!!

I hate it when people pull this stuff. I find that kind of blind optimism is often rooted in fear of facing reality. Of course, that's a vast generalization, but by and large people want — no NEED — to believe that anyone they know or meet can get better. Because otherwise, what does that say about their own chances?

I'm fine with religion, if not much of a practicing person myself, but I get so sick of people using the placating adages like, "God never gives us what we can't handle." Completely not true. There's a goodly amount of things that we can't handle. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the absolute proof of that. And I've lived through PTSD, so I can attest to it!

I think the problem is that people equate optimism with success and anything remotely negative with failure. I find that's not true at all. You should try to look at things positively — but absolutely as they are, not as you want them to be. Or you will surely fail.

16 PunchDebt

Is the definition of an optimist that I provided wrong? NO! I don't care if you don't like Wikipedia. The definition is correct, so it shouldn't matter what the source is. Would I use Wikipedia for a college research paper? No. Is it appropriate to reference casually? Yes.

I still can't believe you essentially called me stupid for pulling info from Wikipedia. Perhaps you woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?

17 Abigail


I wasn't calling you dumb, so much as the social trend of citing a source that can be added to by anyone. But I was being tongue-in-cheek. Sorry it didn't translate.

18 David

I don't think optimism is something you try to cure people of – you try to work with it. If someone is optimistic, try to channel it into a productive outlet.

As an example – someone says "I'm going to lose 100 pounds this year!", try to help them setup small, manageable, sustainable steps rather than complete squash their enthusiasm. You need to help people set realistic expectations, but help them keep that enthusiasm/optimism too.

When I hear people say "God will provide", I reply "God helps those that thelps themselves". It's a good response, regardless of how religious you may or may not be.

19 David

I'd be the first person to admit that I am an optimist, and I often completely fail to understand my practical limits. Sometimes to a fault (I consider it both a strength and a weakness). However, I'm also very calculated and detailed (planning to the Nth degree), so once I decide to do something, I have a high degree of success regardless of how realistic the original goal was.

I think that to be successful, you have to be stupidly optimistic at times. Where would you go in life if you didn't try pushing yourself outside of safe areas? To make optimism productive, you just have to follow through with measurable and attainable steps along the way.

20 ER Extreme

I find the magical thinkers who somehow think they can attract good things into their lives by thinking good thoughts to be even more annoying.

21 Miss Alpha

Your current situation is ALWAYS a product of previous choices. You get fat because you eat too much and/or don’t exercise. You become lonely because you don’t put the time and energy into social relationships. You acquire mounds of debt one purchase at a time.

Of course… if you had a big smile on your face while doing it, you’re still in debt, but it was probably a lot more fun that way. :)

PS: Love the graphic! LOL
.-= Miss Alpha┬┤s most recent blog ..The Psychologist meets The Green Eyed Engineer =-.

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