True Optimism and the Path to Meaning
A prescription for getting through hard times.
Posted Aug 04, 2017
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” cried Chicken Little. If you are unfamiliar or don’t remember the story of Chicken Little, I invite you to watch one of the versions of this classic tale produced in 1943—another challenging time in our history—by Walt Disney (click here). As you will see, there are many lessons to be learned from Chicken Little’s plight that can be applied to what is happening today!
Make no mistake about it: we live in difficult, uncertain, and confusing times. However, let’s not be like Chicken Little and add more fear-mongering fuel to the existing fire of existential angst. That’s not going to solve anything. Besides weakening efforts to find common ground on the many complex and polarizing domestic issues begging resolution (to say nothing about how fear-mongering plays havoc on foreign affairs), cries of “the sky is falling” may do worse; they may prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy!
In life’s most difficult situations, it is our capacity to cope and our personal resiliency that that are put to the ultimate test. It is then that the freedom to choose our attitude takes center stage. In this regard, the world-renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl is perhaps best known for practicing and espousing “freedom of will,” especially in terms of one’s choice of attitude, as a point of departure on the path to meaning.
In Dr. Frankl’s own words, “Everything can be taken from a man but—the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”1 In other words, in all situations, no matter how desperate they may appear or actually be, you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude.
The responsibility for choosing our attitude, of course, lies solely and soundly with each one of us. No matter how much we may want to do so, it cannot be transferred to someone else. I have made this claim over the years not only to individuals facing personal challenges, but also to various corporate and government clients, especially in cases where workers, including executives and managers, seem intent on “bitching and moaning” about their working conditions but don’t appear willing to do anything about them.
I’m reminded of a Far Side cartoon that shows people mingling at a “Part of the Problem” Convention because it illustrates to an absurd level how limited and negative our thinking can become. We celebrate our freedom to choose our attitude only when we decide to move from being a part of the problem to becoming a part of the solution. Former NBA coach Phil Jackson, in his book, Sacred Hoops2, cautions us to remember that the best way to realize our dreams is to wake up! In other words, being part of any solution also means taking action.
When we choose our attitude in light of what Dr. Frankl called true optimism, we actually make three choices: (1) we choose a positive attitude about the situation at hand; (2) we choose an attitude that supports a form of creative visualization about what’s possible; and (3) we choose an attitude that generates passion for the action that makes the possible become a reality. In other words, being a “true optimist” requires more than just positive thinking. Positive affirmations, like good intentions, aren’t enough; we need to be able to visualize the possibilities that may result from our choice of attitude, and be able to feel the emotion or passion behind our choice of attitude that will help us actualize or realize such possibilities.
We each have the ultimate freedom to make these choices, but it is amazing how frequently we don’t. We either “choose” to abstain from taking full responsibility for what should be our conscious choices or “choose,” albeit unconsciously, to remain frozen in thought patterns that may no longer serve our highest good. In short, we become “prisoners of our thoughts.”3
Man is not free from conditions. But he is free to take a stand in regard to them. The conditions do not completely condition him. Within limits it is up to him whether or not he succumbs and surrenders to the conditions. He may as well rise above them and by so doing open up and enter the human dimension...Ultimately, man is not subject to the conditions that confront him; rather, these conditions are subject to his decision. Wittingly or unwittingly, he decides whether he will face up or give in, whether or not he will let himself be determined by the conditions.—Viktor Frankl, M.D., Ph.D.4
In my work and personal experience, I have encountered clients, co-workers, friends, and family members who are stuck in old habits of self-imprisonment (and, of course, I’ve “been there, done that” as well!). They display the power of negative thinking about a given life or work situation, assuring that they could never visualize a better tomorrow. Or they are steeped in so much fear of the unknown (again, remember Chicken Little!) that they have essentially immobilized themselves, effectively avoiding any kind of risk, or have reacted in ways that essentially “work against themselves.”5 The ultimate freedom to choose their attitude and a positive future, no matter how desperate they may be, seems as foreign to them as a life in which they could feel truly fulfilled and happy.
So how about you? Even if you believe that the “sky is falling,” what are you going to do about it? Are you willing and committed to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem? Are you ready to escape the inner mental prison that may be holding you back from achieving your full potential? Are you a “true optimist?”
1. Frankl, V.E. (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, 4th edition. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 75.
2. Jackson, P, & Delehanty, H. (1995). Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. New York: Hyperion.
3. See: Pattakos A., & Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
4. Frankl, V.E. (1967). Psychotherapy and Existentialism. New York: Washington Square, p. 3.
5. This kind of behavior is closely related to a logotherapeutic concept called paradoxical intention which will be discussed in a future post. See also: Chapter 6, “Principle 4: Don’t Work Against Yourself” in Pattakos A., & Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.