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This episode is about tragic optimism 

Are you sick of the relentless stream of drama and bad news and just wish you could find something positive to read and share? 

Then you might be interested in tragic optimism and the opportunities it might bring you to feel more positive and purposeful in these challenging times.

What is Tragic Optimism? 

If you’ve read the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, you will know that he discusses this concept through the lens of life in a concentration camp.  

He talks about making suffering meaningful, seeing guilt as a chance to improve ourselves, and interpreting life’s fragility and unpredictability as motivation to find meaning.  

In this episode, I’ll talk about 
* What Tragic Optimism means, and the research behind it
* Avoiding the ‘happiness trap’

He found a way to transcend suffering through his own inner decision-making. 

Frankl defined ‘tragic optimism’ as a state of optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which, at its best, always allows for: 

  1. turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment 
  2. out of guilt, defining the opportunity to change oneself for the better, and 
  3. out of life’s transitoriness, defining an incentive to take responsible action. 

He doesn’t claim that we must suffer to discover meaning, but rather, that meaning can be found despite or because of suffering. 

Where does real happiness come from? 

Frankl says it comes from finding meaning in our lives because this is what provides our reason to be happy.  

More recently with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, research by Anna Gotlib (1) backs Viktor Frankl’s concept of tragic optimism.  

Her study indicates that people who cope better in crisis can do so because they can acknowledge suffering without being pulled under by it.  

Gotlib says it’s not about finding happiness or even distraction from sadness. It is about repairing our narratives and our lives – about learning to let go of the stories around isolation, defeat, loss of control and worthlessness – and to create new narratives and recast a more meaningful future where hope exists. 

I would consider myself to be a tragic optimist in many ways. I believe that the negative stories we tell ourselves are instructions on how to act. It is only when we define new stories that we provide clear instructions to our bodies and brains on how to step into our future selves and flourish. 

Let’s be clear – this is not a ‘don’t’ worry, be happy’ concept. 

It is about honouring uncertainty and encouraging hopefulness. It is about recognising that we can turn inwards to find new words, ideas and valuations, and then share them outwardly and begin again. 

So, how do we do this?

Avoiding The Happiness Trap 

Well, for starters, we can avoid the Happiness Trap. 

What is that? Well, it’s a concept offered by Dr Russ Harris (2).  

In his book of the same name, Russ describes an empirically supported model known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an effective model that can help you to address suffering and find meaning. 

And sure, there are many ways and disciplines that can help you to tackle suffering and find meaning, such as self-compassion, mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy. 

ACT includes aspects of all of these and more.  

Rather than focussing on striving for happiness, it teaches you to undermine struggle, avoidance and loss using mindfulness, acceptance, cognitive defusion and a focus on values-based living. 

ACT has over 35 years of evidence in treating conditions from anxiety and chronic pain to weight loss and performance enhancement, and over 300 randomised controlled trials that support the efficacy of ACT in alleviating suffering and promoting human flourishing.

Isn’t it amazing to think that by changing your relationship with your thoughts and feelings, you can transcend both physical and emotional pain? 

In my opinion, if you want to find meaning and become a tragic optimist whose life is based on meaning and fulfilment, I think Russ is the best person to help. 

He teaches you how to blow your own mind, so to speak, by naming your stories and becoming a better storyteller, by separating yourself from unhelpful thoughts, and by learning simple tricks and techniques to defusing those thoughts and find true acceptance. 

By doing this, you can stop chasing happiness (which is the trap he describes) and transform your relationship with painful thoughts and feelings to lessen their impact and influence over your life. 

In turn, you create space for a rich and meaningful life, a sense of vitality and fulfilment that is satisfying and long lasting.   

Now I know that some people might rail at the thought of having to ‘accept’ things.  

But have you considered the true definition of acceptance? 

It’s not tolerating or putting up with things – it literally means taking what is offered. It is opening yourself up to what is happening right now.   

And it is your first firm foothold to stop suffering and to start taking action toward more of what you want in life. 

Summary

In these uncertain times, it can be hard to feel positive or find hope in the difficult circumstances that are affecting us all. 

But there are pioneers and researchers such as Viktor Frankl, Anna Gotlib and Russell Harris who have done great work to prove that we can rise above the painful thoughts and feelings we have, to become tragic optimists – people who are able to transcend the unhelpful thought loops and re-craft stories that give us more meaning, purpose and ultimately, freedom. 

References 

  1. Gotlib A. Letting Go of Familiar Narratives as Tragic Optimism in the Era of COVID-19. J Med Humanit. 2021;42(1):81-101. doi:10.1007/s10912-021-09680-8 
  1. Harris, Russell. The Science. The Happiness Trap Website accessed 26.1.22. https://thehappinesstrap.com/the-science/ 

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