Are we so obsessed we our future selves that we are damaging our present?
What happens when we become so invested in the idea of our future, “better” self that we start sacrificing our happiness and self-worth in order to achieve it? Roe McDermott looks at the concept of cruel optimism, and how it often disempowers us in order to enforce damaging ideals.
I once fell in a love with a man who was rich. Not a one percenter-rich, but, you know, rich. Flew everywhere first class -rich. Decided he wanted a house in San Francisco and bought it within a week -rich. Gave me a near-puking panic attack with our hotel bill on a trip before assuring me that two grand (TWO GRAND) of it was for the expensive tequila he had been swigging and so he would cover that -rich.
I hadn’t fallen for him because of his money, obviously. In fact, it caused more issues than it solved. He couldn’t comprehend how little money I was making while living in the States on a work-restricted student Visa, and so a casual dinner out for him in a nice restaurant caused me a week of ramen-eating stress. When he was mean or neglectful, he would buy me a gift I didn’t want instead of addressing his behaviour, which felt demeaning. On the rare occasions I bought a new outfit for a date night, he’d comment on how cheap the fabric was, not understanding that sometimes a girl has to make do with the Fashion Nova sale, but still wants to hear she looks nice.
“Though he had more money than I could fathom, he was obsessed with accumulating more.”
His wealth and attitude towards it meant we simply didn’t understand each other in many small, unspoken ways, but there was no mistaking the chasm of difference in our outlook towards work and the future. I was toiling away as a feminist writer and academic, knowing it would never make me rich but loving that it allowed me to pursue my passions while surrounded by colleagues and peers who challenged me and inspired me – and it gave me time to inhale as much art and culture as I could. To me, that seemed like a good blueprint for a life.
Though he had more money than I could fathom, he was obsessed with accumulating more. He often worked fourteen hour days at a job he admitted was ethically abominable, but he was determined to make as much money as he could before retiring at 45. He was happy to neglect his social life, interests, romantic relationships and personal beliefs to get there. It would be worth it, he asserted. He could live his life at 45, just how he wanted.
We didn’t last, but I think of him often. And wonder if at 45, he will finally have the life he wanted to have, if he will have accumulated enough money and power to feel secure, if he will then become the man he wanted to be – and whether postponing that for decades was really necessary.
“If we don’t have any of this thing, we are not enough”
I thought of him when I read the term “cruel optimism”; a term coined by sociologist Lauren Berlant. It refers to a social phenomenon where people become so obsessed with a vision of their future, ideal selves, that they actually prevent themselves from flourishing in the present. Of course, we all have responsibilities and requirements that can prevent us from living our happiest lives in the moment – we have work, bills to pay, family responsibilities. And most of our attachments to objects or goals are optimistic in nature, hoping that they’ll enrich our lives.
But cruel optimism specifically refers to the extra, self-imposed limitations that go beyond enabling our survival and start to hinder our fulfilment. Cruel optimism is an obsessive attachment that is impossible, toxic or all-consuming. It’s predicated on the assumption that we alone are somehow worthless, and our future proximity to something – an object, an achievement, a status – is the only thing that will make us different in just the right way.
If we don’t have any of this thing, we are not enough. If we only have some of this thing, it’s not enough. It’s the only thing that will make us happy, but it will never be enough
My ex’s attitude to work and money seemed like an obvious example of this; his assumption that a money-filled future was worth his twenties and thirties disappearing into an office building. But since learning this term, I can’t help but notice how many ways we engage in forms of cruel optimism, and how insidious this form of self-punishment can be.
I think of the casual ways I’ve heard friends promise that they’ll try the latest fun trends when they’ve lost weight, because their future, skinnier self will look better in them. I notice how peers refuse to seriously date people who make them happy because they don’t match the shallow “good on paper” checklist they envision their future, ideal partner fulfilling. Even my generation’s obsession with FOMO that prevents us from committing to plans just in case something more interesting, more shiny, more ideal pops up.
We are suspending our lives to chase an ideal that may not make us happy, or may not materialise at all.
But while individually we may flirt with cruel optimism, there are entire movements and systems dependent on locking us into a tight relationship with it. These are often systems that promise transformation, that guarantee the perfect life as long as you reach one goal – without mentioning that the goal itself is unattainable.
The gambling industry’s promise that with just one more bet, you will win enough money – as if there is “enough” money. The beauty industry that says you will be happy as long as you achieve the perfect body – then the perfect skin, perfect hair, and then the new idea of the perfect body that has emerge while you were focusing on your hair, and then the natural process of aging will bring up a whole host of other “problem areas” demanding “fixing”.
This is how damaging industries make money. By ensuring we never feel beautiful enough, rich enough, powerful enough, and relying on cruel optimism to keep us trying.
Even more abstract, yet all-encompassing ideas depend on cruel optimism, making promises that are impossible for many to attain. Capitalism, The American Dream, upward mobility, “the good life.” These ideas dangle the prospect of an end-point of security, stability, happiness and privilege, asserting that if people just work hard enough, act “the right” way, make “the right” decisions, then wealth, security, power and happiness will be guaranteed. But in the small print lie the Terms & Conditions: not only are these ideas rooted in consumer culture, which means you will constantly be striving for another object and a lifestyle that is newer, bigger, shinier – but these ideals have always been predicated on privileging a few, oppressing others, and so are dependent on most people failing.
Optimism of acceptance
We’re always taught that optimism is a good thing, that having goals and looking towards the future will always lead us to be happier. But when optimism itself can be cruel, can be dependent on our dissatisfaction, can in fact be an obstacle to happiness, it’s worth examining the ways in which optimism is being weaponised not to empower us, but to empower destructive systems and societal ideals.
Maybe to be healthy, optimism needs to start from a place of self-acceptance. Optimism should rely on the hope that the world and our circumstances will get better, and not be dependent on the idea that we, ourselves, need to be better.
Will we begin to recognise this difference and start reclaiming what goals and ambitions and dreams actually serve our happiness? One can only hope.