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Can tragic optimism help you during difficult times?

This alternative belief system, which delves into finding hope and meaning and holding onto them even during a tragedy, could moderate the impact of suffering on life satisfaction

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's belief and understanding of tragic optimism emerged from his own traumatic experiences
Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's belief and understanding of tragic optimism emerged from his own traumatic experiences (Unsplash)

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As we emerge gradually from the covid-19 pandemic, we now face another stressful period of financial concerns, with increased costs of living and job layoffs in some sectors. All these socioeconomic factors are likely to have a significant effect on people's outlook on life.

Different reports have suggested that Gen Z is already reporting an increased prevalence of mental health challenges owing to the pandemic, climate crisis, the future of work, social media usage, and other stressful current events. Against this backdrop, it can be difficult to remain positive or hopeful. What can then help cope during these difficult times?

Tragic optimism (TO) can be an alternative belief system that delves into finding hope and meaning and holding onto them even during a tragedy. According to a 2021 study on tragic optimism as a buffer against covid-19 suffering, it can moderate the impact of suffering on life satisfaction and serve as a protective factor. "TO is primarily an attitude or life orientation in a world full of dangers and suffering as during COVID-19. It is hopeful that eventually, things would turn out OK, but this positive expectation is based on faith in God and not on his/her own agency and efforts of an individual," it said.

Also read: 15 ways to manage your mental health during a recession

Understanding tragic optimism

Coined by the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in the 1980s, his belief and understanding of tragic optimism emerged from his own traumatic experiences. In an essay from his book Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl speaks of the tragic optimism outlook as saying 'yes' to life even after facing tragic circumstances. He defines it as “an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best allows for the following (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”

According to Mumbai-based psychotherapist and founder of mental health studio TalkSpace, Sheba Singh, [Frankl] asserted that we can feel optimistic and find meaning and purpose in life despite the tragic triad i.e. Pain, Guilt, and Death. Hyderabad-based rehabilitation psychologist and psychotherapy practitioner Tanusree Mustafi further provides the context that Frankl did not negate his experiences. "He is not trivialising his experiences. He is not making it bigger than it should be. It happened. As simple as that—it happened," says Mustafi. She correlates it with the trauma-focused therapy that she specialises in and believes to be a modern-age form of Frankl's conceptualisation of tragic optimism."We are taking in things as are and experiences as they are. We are not trying to add anything to it. If I am feeling sad, it is my job to experience that sadness. It is our job to notice that nothing is permanent in this life," she explains. When you look at these experiences and accept pain, guilt, and death as part and parcel of your life, you can find meaning and hope in them. "In essence, tragic optimism gives you the ability to hold the present as well as hold hope for the future," she adds.

Singh further explains that this technique can help in building resilience and developing and maintaining relationships. It has a practical utility, especially in times of crisis. For instance, a tragic optimist outlook can be the very tool to provide support for people getting laid off right now to cope with the situation by supporting each other. "Tragic optimism instils hopefulness. It also helps [you] understand the situation of others in the same [or] similar situations," says Singh. It can also help in developing better connections and strengthening bonds in relationships. "When people find meaning and purpose in difficult situations, they may be better able to communicate and connect with their partners or loved ones. This shared sense of purpose can help create a stronger bond between them, as they work together to navigate the challenges they face," adds Singh.

The hope instilled by tragic optimism, knowingly or unknowingly, was most pertinent during the tragic waves of covid-19. Mustafi says that despite the uncertainty and anxiety caused by the pandemic, people found meaning in their lives by taking up new hobbies, adopting pets, starting their family planning, and building daily schedules. It was also evident when strangers and volunteers helped each other in times of darkness and gloom."Strangers [took] life risks to help people. If that is not optimism, then what is," probes Mustafi, explaining that doing something for others is another way of deriving meaning in life as part of a tragic optimist outlook.

Building tragic optimism over toxic positivity

Both Singh and Mustafi also see tragic optimism to be an alternative to toxic positivity. The latter, as the term suggests, is all about keeping a positive mindset no matter how terrible the circumstance is. Mustafi defines it as false hope in contrast to cynicism where you have lost all hope. "That's denying reality. It's saying what happened to me was not real. What I felt was not real. So, my feelings won't matter [and] I won't matter," she asserts.

The "positive vibes" approach may sound good, but it actually makes us ignore the full spectrum of our emotions, especially the negative ones. "Suppressing true feelings may lead to anxiety and stress. That may also lead to not addressing the problem," shares Singh. While she believes that positivity can initially build emotional strength, tragic optimism can then be the ultimate option. A tragic optimist outlook, that way, allows you to observe your complete experience, accept negative feelings, and keep hope and meaning alive.

Also read: A support group if you're mourning the death of your pet

Though there are no absolute solutions or one size fits all approach to encountering and coping with difficult situations, it may be beneficial to acknowledge and accept the tragic experiences and try to find meaning in them through a tragic optimist mindset, without suppressing your feelings. Mustafi advocates for the intention to stay curious and ask yourself what you are feeling and experiencing to observe yourself. She also gives the example of distancing yourself through these three sentences and noting the difference between them: "I am sad. I am feeling sad. I can see or observe that I am feeling sad right now." She says the third sentence is concurrent with tragic optimism where you know your experience can change later on.

Singh advocates for mindfulness exercises to bring yourself to the present moment. She also suggests "connecting with people who have been through similar situations and coped" as a helpful measure. Since it can be difficult to do so alone, Mustafi suggests having a partner—like the therapist in trauma-focused modalities—to learn things from and experience them together. That's where learning takes place. And "the hope comes from observation, the hope comes from knowing that my capabilities are more than what I was aware of," she says.

Anmol is an independent journalist who writes and reports on gender, health, social justice, and culture from an intersectional lens.

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