One of my favorite stories is in James Kirkwoods’ book, “There Must Be a Pony,” and it’s about a father of twin sons, age eight. One son is an incurable optimist and the other is a complete pessimist.
The father decides to try an experiment because he’s a little alarmed about this difference: On Christmas Eve, he fills the pessimist’s room with piles and piles of toys — everything a boy that age could want. And in the optimist’s room he puts a big pile of horse manure.
On Christmas morning, he goes to check in and see how they’re reacting to these different situations.
He peeks in on the pessimist and he’s sitting there looking at all the toys but he hasn’t opened anything. There’s games and sporting equipment, and he hasn’t touched or opened a single thing. He’s just eyeing it all suspiciously as if he’s wondering what the catch is.
The father sighs and goes to the optimist’s room. That son is standing waist-deep in the horse manure shoveling it up in the air over his shoulder, and he’s laughing like a fiend!
His father is puzzled by this and says to his son, “Son, what are you doing?”
And his son says, “Gee dad, with all this horse manure there must be a pony!”
I think more than any psychology article or textbook that I’ve ever read on optimism, this story captures something wonderful about the optimistic mindset.
An optimist believes that taking some action will have a beneficial outcome.
But I think the other aspect of this that’s interesting is there’s quite a bit of evidence that even having an optimistic mindset can buffer you against the kinds of things like hopelessness or despair that can happen when you’re facing negative circumstances.
I don’t know if at the bottom of every pile of horse manure there’s going to be a pony.
But until you grab a shovel and start shoveling yourself, you’ll never know.
Question: Do you consider yourself an optimist, a pessimist, or neither? And why?