What Gives Me Optimism: Harvard Positive Psychology Expert Tal Ben-Shahar

“Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best of things that happen.”

As part of an ongoing series, Thrive is asking some of the most interesting people we know to tell us what’s been making them hopeful lately. Here’s what Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., positive psychology expert and world renowned lecturer, told us:

From the time I can remember myself, I was often told, or heard others being told, that “everything happens for the best.” While on a global or cosmic level that may be true, personally I never truly bought into this worldview. It was only years later, after studying philosophy and psychology, that I was able to formulate my own modified version of this statement: Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best of things that happen. The belief that things happen for the best is optimism that relies on blind faith. In contrast, understanding that we can make the best of things that happen is realistic optimism. Another way of distinguishing the two types of optimism is that the former is passive optimism while the latter, active optimism.

Life is often hard, and at times things happen to us that we wish never had. As a number of great thinkers pointed out — from Buddha to Schopenhauer, from Marcus Aurelius to Martha Nussbaum — suffering is a natural and inevitable part of life. The question is what we do with the hardship, how we deal with the suffering. Armed with realistic optimism, we can actively take charge of our predicament and consequently learn, grow, and make the best of most things that life throws our way.

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