As a younger man, I would describe myself as an overly idealistic person. Now, years later, I describe myself as more of a “philosophical realist.”
What is “realism,” and what does it look like in practice?
The aim of realism is to attempt to see things as they are. This is, of course, extremely difficult because our perception of the outside world changes as we change. Seeing something through the eyes of your younger self may not be the same experience as seeing that same thing as your current self. And, truth be told, surely your future self may also not see things the same as the prior two.
That said, however, I think it is possible to see events through a somewhat impartial lens, rather than through the distorted lens of idealism or cynicism. Realists, I have learned, remain impartial: They do not judge, and surprises do not come often. We are informed by our past to make predictions about our present circumstances. Idealists see the world as they ought to be, ideally, while cynical individuals are the opposite of idealists. They are fooled into believing that they, too, are seeing the world as it is, like realists, but their view is no less distorted than the idealists. Rather than being overly idealistic, they remain overly cynical.
Psychological realism has its roots in three areas of western thought: stoicism, eastern traditions, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Although it remains outside of the scope of this article to dive into the details of each, it is important to point out that psychological realism promotes that we try to see the world as it is, without judgment, in order to best assess what to do next. In a way, it’s like being the scientist of our own lives. We must assess the data as objectively as possible (realism) in order to determine the most appropriate course of action.
That younger man I mentioned at the beginning of the article often saw the world through a distorted lens. Of course, promoting happiness and joy is essential, but refusing to acknowledge the “facts” ultimately may undermine our long-term success. Of course, there remains a high probability that realism is not the same as “objective,” in that, there may be no one true “objective view” out there somewhere. What is there, however, is the outside world divorced from what we want to be or how we think it should be rather than how it is. This enables us to make the best decisions possible with the best facts we can have access to.
To conclude, adopting psychological realism in my life was a move that I haven’t regretted. When we are confronted with a personal crisis or difficult challenge, in order to solve it, we may best be helped by removing all of the “noise” for the situation, settling in, and starting to plan. In most cases, barring a “life-or-death” emergency situation, we can ignore our fight or flight impulse and take the time to make the best decisions moving forward. Finally, in a world of trade-offs and constraints, we might not always be faced with the most ideal situation, but psychological realism helps us to clear the dust in the air and see things clearly.