Practical Optimism: The Art, Science, and Practice of Exceptional Well-Being

Image of Practical Optimism: The Art, Science, and Practice of Exceptional Well-Being
Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
Reviewed by: 

Practical Optimism is very solid in its ideas and methods—comprehensive in about every way, . . .”

Optimists are not necessarily practical, and practical people are not necessarily optimists.

Imagine the two personality types embodied in the same person. That is the blend of perspective and action that Dr. Sue Varma wishes for all of us, so we may build and sustain a life of contribution, compassion (to others and ourselves), and resilience. 

As we read Practical Optimism, we see that Dr. Varma has dedicated herself to those ends as a doctor, teacher at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, emergency services director, practicing psychiatrist, and a highly visible, authoritative, expert on all the major networks. Now, in her first book, she has taken on the exacting world of medical journalism. No stopping this doctor and humanist. 

Practical Optimism (PO) is a book by an exceptionally smart, scientifically informed, well-trained psychiatrist, who now steps out of the hospital and her office to offer in writing her deep clinical and personal experiences for a broad, general readership. 

This book, as Dr. Varma writes, is in part, a pragmatic philosophy for a life well lived and, in part, the layered and detailed steps needed to achieve that goal. The rest is warm, personal, and evocative stories from her life and that of her family.

The book’s layers, if you will, are what she terms the Eight Pillars that, when enacted with ongoing attention and in sequence, can construct the state of mind, skills, and intentional actions for achieving a life brimming with people and purpose, pride in how we live our life, and resilience—because no life is without bumps, small to traumatic.

The pillars are: purpose, processing emotions, problem-solving, pride, proficiency, present, people, and practicing healthy habits.

As an example, the chapter on “processing emotions” illustrates Dr. Varma’s expertise and belief in the effectiveness of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). Her narrative construct for this chapter is “name, claim, and tame (reframe),” perhaps one of the most succinct definitions of CBT to be had. One of the book’s many “PO Pearls” reveals a fidelity to CBT, namely, “You don’t have to believe all your thoughts.” The theory behind CBT treatment is that how we think determines how we feel. Certain cognitive beliefs, like over-estimating a danger and dimly viewing the capacity to manage it, are the drivers of emotional distress and disorder. The devil is in the detail about how to name, tame and reframe. She describes “exercises” toward each of those aims that make sense, but require time, energy, and discipline.

Dr. Varma makes clear from the start of the book, that becoming a PO cannot be done overnight. She suggests starting small and building on gains. Indeed, but sustaining a commitment to the tasks needed to change surely will be months, or longer, with gains often subtle and likely not sufficient to propel further mental work. That’s one reason for needing a therapist to keep going.

Practical Optimism is very solid in its ideas and methods—comprehensive in about every way, with thought exercises, questions and assessments that explore you and your feelings, lengthy explanations, questions about capacity and power, patient examples that go beyond one page in length, even theoretical tables.  

The principles of writing well, advanced by William Zinsser in his book On Writing Well (which supplanted Strunk & White’s paean to grammar and has sold over 1 million copies) are Clarity, Simplicity, Humanity, and Brevity. Practical Optimism succeeds with the first three. The fourth presents a worthy challenge for further writing by a practical optimist.