The Lost Wars of Optimism

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Seneca, the lake Wobegon effect – The Cult of Romanticism – But, not necessarily

(Un)happiness is reflected in the disparity between our expectation and the truth (i.e. the reality). The smaller the distance between the duo, the less unhappy we become. In other words, to be unhappy, is to be disappointed. I will begin with one of my favorite philosophers – Lucius Annaeus Seneca. The more I realize Seneca is no saint, as opposed to the impression I get from his essays, the more I get fascinated by his personality.

He was called from Corsica (exile) by Agrippina to tutor the young lad Nero to somewhat mimic the Aristotle-Alexander the Great alliance [i]. He came to Rome with his bags over-flowing of moral philosophical essays, containing lengthy and sophisticated arguments about what to do and what-not to do, what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, what we ought to do and what we ought not to do, things like that, you get the point.

Fast forward few years later. He was caught consenting to the assassination of living human beings (compelled by Nero), coveting (somewhat illegally) landed properties in Rome, and some other shenanigans I have no time to list in this essay. Not because he wanted to in my opinion, but because he thought he was stronger than he was – he took a job to train a monster in a (very) filthy environment.

To cut the long story short, he failed miserably, as he was forced to commit suicide by his own student (and emperor) –  Nero. I bet he was disappointed as we can discern from his essays. If there are a thousand things to blame for his situation, his optimism will be the first.

This optimism thing is not uncommon and it is very evident in various self-serving bias – the Lake Wobegon effect.

Next, we will look at the story of John Fredov.

The Cult of Romanticism

John is a shy guy. Very smart, and ridiculously humble. He completed a PhD in Analytic Metaphysics at the University of Toronto. Last year, he came across this stunning lady at Dundas metro station and he felt a violent stream of goosebumps all over him. To make the task easy, Janet had very identical feelings.

They hung around for a while and finally got married. As per usual, the internet was flooded with angelic wedding photos. It was marvelous. However, few months later things got a little bit rough.

John started by complaining about Janet’s manner of eating, Janet about John’s increasingly apathy to Janet’s feeling. John about Janet’s thunderous farts, Janet about John’s lack of interest in entrepreneurship, John about this, Janet about that, you know that kind of thing. It went from a bit rough to insanely rough.

Fortunately for John and Janet, they met a fantastic mentor who made them realize the following:

First, we are all weak: unfortunately, we have very little self-knowledge of our weakness. This is partly because our friends and our parents have little incentive to apprise us of our weaknesses, so they don’t bother to tell us, but they know them. This leads us to end up in relationship thinking we are perfect.

Second, our environment sucks. It propagates a cult of romanticism patently displayed in movies, Instagram, Facebook etc., unconsciously driving a sense of a rosy path in marriage. [ii]

These 2 factors in play results into a disaster –  unguided optimism leading to uncountable marriage debacles.

But, not necessarily

Maybe all we need is to be less optimistic to be somewhat happier? Indeed, there is truth to that. It is impossible to embrace reality without some high dose of pessimism.  But not necessarily, perhaps all we need is a brutally honest map that takes us from where we are to the point of our expectation. Still, I doubt if such an endeavor (when done rigorously) will not create, at least, a tiny room for pessimism.

However, this does not displace a rational argument for optimism – if the downside of being disappointed from not reaching a goal does not outweigh the excitement (or benefit) of reaching the same goal.


Thank you for reading.


[i] James Romm, Dying Everyday: Seneca at the court of Nero.

[ii] Paraphrased from Alain de Botton (

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