I would describe myself as a maniacal cynic, as in, not only am I perpetually pessimistic, but I often wish pessimistic situations on others who seem just too happy. Perhaps my personality comes from a mix of nature and nurture, from having a mother who “just doesn’t buy it” when sad puppies appear on the TV promoting animal shelter donations, from watching too many stand-up comedians who are really just assholes with a microphone in their hand. Regardless, I admit that I find comfort in expecting misery and truly believe that others would benefit from following this perspective as well so that they can save themselves from the costly disappointment of expecting happiness and ending with inevitable doom-and-gloom.
Now imagine my horror, when upon my arrival at Princeton, I found that I had been placed directly next door to someone who I would describe as a psychotic optimist. Optimist, in that she believes that everything will work out well in the end, no matter how horrible the situation seems. Psychotic, in that she is an optimist.
Within the first few weeks of class, I began to observe a noticeable difference in our perception of Princeton. While we both took nearly the same classes, I was being flattened by the workload and suffocated by my expectation of something going wrong—so much so that all I could think about was how impossible Princeton seemed and how isolated I felt in comparison to my seemingly more prepared peers. Realizing that this wasn’t an issue for her, I asked how she dealt with the crushing pressure that Princeton seemed to present. She responded that she did indeed feel the pressure but was trying to “romanticize her Ivy-league life” to cope. She revealed she did this by appreciating the simple things, like walking between classes on cobblestone pathways through the castle-like structures and leaning into the positive stereotype that people hold for Ivy League students.
Her simple response elicited a simple rejection from me. There was no way that “romanticizing Princeton” was enough to make Princeton feel like it wasn’t trying to maliciously eradicate all my time with work and subsequently replace my identity with a series of Canvas discussion posts. In my refusal of her logic, I decided that my response to Princeton was a matter of identity, that I couldn’t be happy here because I wasn’t meant to be here, that I was not from the right background, but that she was, and that’s why her positive attitude worked. I felt that my problems came from my own past, and not my perception of the present.
Although we ended up spending more and more time together due to shared classes and living spaces, and a friendship began to develop, the maniacal cynic in me couldn’t help but wish pessimistic situations upon her. I had a secret, villainous desire for her to face something difficult enough to test her positivity, where she would realize that not everything works out, and thus it is much safer to expect things to not work out. I wanted her to feel the same negative pressure that I felt and then bellow a glorious “Aha! See, positivity doesn’t work!” when she caved to the situation, proving that it wasn’t my cynical fault for caving to my own situations.
In a way, I got what I wanted. She ended up facing a terrible situation—the unexpected end of a long-term relationship. Naturally, I felt horrible, seeing her in pain after developing what was now a close friendship was difficult to watch. Still, a small dubious part of myself was curious to see how her optimism held up, to see if she still really felt that things “just work out” in the end.
Surprising (and yet so predictable) my cynical desires were unfounded—she was as optimistic as ever. When she talked about her heartbreak to me she told me (and I quote) “Sometimes it really hurts, but I think to myself, thank God I’m not a toad. Like, I am so grateful to be a human who can feel real emotions and have experienced this pain as much as I experienced the joy that caused it.” At another time, “At least I’m not some hamsterous creature, who can’t feel anything, condemned to only thinking about cheese.”
She’s actually insane, I thought, after hearing her logic. But slowly, as I grew closer with her and continued to watch her process the world around her—watch as her positivity held through all sorts of turmoil—I began to catch myself thinking what I had previously found obnoxious: the buildings really are pretty here. I am glad I’m not a toad. Things probably will work out in the end. Princeton isn’t so bad.
I’ve realized that there has always been merit in looking at the bright side of things; I have just ignored this view because I didn’t think that looking at things optimistically could actually be sustainable in genuinely bad circumstances. Part of this, I am sure, has a strong connection to mental health, and the dark moments that one can take oneself to when they feel hopeless or experience pain. But I am so grateful to have learned from such a kind and non-hamsterous friend just how much mindset matters, and how much I am in control of my perception.
That being said, I am still a cynical person. I still grumble at people who are having too much fun and I still wish for people who are riding those ridiculous one-wheel-scooter-things to trip over a large rock. However, living with a psychotic optimist has proved to me that I can be happy while I’m stressed, that I can open myself up to people and treasure experiences (even if I get hurt), and that it works out to expect the best out of situations instead of the worst.