Written by Meg Walters
These days, we’re bombarded with images and stories of other people’s successes. But trying to enforce a positive outlook on your own life isn’t always the best policy. Here’s why “tragic optimism” can be far more constructive.
Where do you find your meaning? Maybe it’s through your relationships or your job or your hobbies. For most of us, life feels the most meaningful when it’s going well. There’s nothing like that feeling of satisfaction after your boss has just given you a raise, you’ve clocked off for the weekend, you’ve got plans to see your friends and the forecast promises clear skies all day.
But when things get tough, our sense of meaning can suddenly melt away. On the lonely, rainy days, you may suddenly find yourself wondering what your purpose really is.
According to the Office for National Statistics, more and more people across the UK have begun to feel that their lives lack meaning or purpose. As Professor Suzanne Degges-White writes for Psychology Today, “tragic optimism” is the perfect way to regain some control of how we view our lives.
What is tragic optimism?
It may sound like a bit of an oxymoron, and that’s because tragic optimism is all about balancing two opposing things in the mind – tragedy and hope. In a nutshell, it’s the practice of accepting and embracing the tragedies in our lives in order to find peace and even optimism about the future.
The concept was first developed by German philosopher Viktor Frankl after his experiences in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. In Man’s Search For Meaning, he described it as “the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life, despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.”
Life, Frankl suggested, can – and probably will – be sad or even tragic. Most of us either try to suppress the low points in life or let them take over altogether. Both tactics, in the long run, can lead to feelings of confusion, sadness or even mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. However, by accepting and acknowledging the low points in life, we can perhaps move past them and continue to find meaning in our lives.
“Saying yes to life in spite of everything… presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable,” Frankl wrote. “And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation.”
Using a tragic optimism mindset today
It’s safe to say that most of us have never experienced anything close to the horrors of a concentration camp. However, Frankl’s principle of tragic optimism can still be applied to our own lives.
As Degges-White notes, it’s normal for the human mind to fixate on bad events and give them high importance when thinking back over our life’s story. For instance, when you reflect on your life’s timeline, there are probably break-ups, family deaths and missed job opportunities along the way.
In today’s world, toxic positivity tends to reign supreme. Log onto Instagram or TikTok and you’ll probably see only the highlight reel – the break-ups and deaths and missed jobs will be edited out. This might make you think that your own timeline is somehow abnormal – that your life is more tragic than the lives of those around you. So, you might start to edit the bad stuff out of your Instagram timeline – and your mental timeline, too.
But what if we all started focusing on the lows in our lives just as much as we focus on the highs. And, in turn, we may find a deeper sense of meaning in our lives – a sense that it is precisely because of the hard times that we are who we are today. In modern terms, we are not just the bottomless brunches and weekend getaways and marriage proposals – we are also the lonely Saturday evenings and the ghosted Tinder conversations and the empty bank accounts, too. And if we can find contentment with all of that, perhaps we can be a little happier in the long term.
Tips on adopting a tragic optimism mindset
- Don’t rewrite the bad stuff. If things get tough, don’t try to airbrush it out of your life. Sure, you might not want to plaster it all over social media, but find some people you trust to discuss how you’re feeling and spend some time sitting with your emotions.
- Notice when you’re happy and be grateful. Nothing in life is static. Happiness comes and goes for all of us. So, when you’re feeling positive, enjoy it.
- Reassess your personal timeline. What are the milestones that have brought you to where you are today? Both the good and the bad? How have your failures helped you to grow?
- Try meditation. A meditation practice can help you live in the moment and accept both the good and the bad that life can bring.
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