94. Expectations

Our planet is seriously overpopulated with expectations. They come in countless varieties, from positive to negative, from economic to astronomic, from environmental to cultural. All of these expectations, of course, are in our own minds. The personal ones are basic to our experience as human beings and mostly self-created. I suspect they start with breast feeding. At the age of four I was eager to fulfill my expectations of meeting the Easter Bunny in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. By five I was already nourishing expectations (fostered by my father) of becoming as famous as Picasso! I am still burdened by a multiplicity of expectations as evidenced by this blog in which I have expectations that I can educate, inform and make a difference.

Expectations are pervasive in our lives and so, consequently are disappointments. When our expectations are met and things go according to plan or hopes, we feel relieved, accomplished and on track. When the result to which we aspired is frustrated or not met we feel stymied: we have not lived up to the expectations we placed upon ourselves. This leads us to ask why we engage in such an excess of expectations about ourselves and the world around us? In effect, are they infectious? Indeed our values, beliefs and expectations deeply affect the ways humanity moves.

In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens’ most famous novel, its hero, Pip’s social advancement in life reflected the aspirations of the Victorian era. Although the expectations referred to by the title were for the monetary legacy which was to come to Pip, the author’s drive was certainly fueled by “The Great Exhibition” of 1851. The new social mobility depended on people having ideas and expectations “above their station,” which further inspired the younger generations to climb up the social ladder.

A hundred years later, the children of the 1950s generation who just finished school or graduated from a college or university in the UK could expect to earn more than their parents and were soon to own their own homes. They had expectations that their children, in turn, would follow up on the advances that their parents had made. Today, however, the idea that each generation would be more fortunate than the last no longer holds true. Many of the young “are struggling to earn a decent wage in an increasingly insecure and low pay labor market.”1 Their expectations are no longer on the optimistic side and are replaced by frustration as they are forced to accept that the political and economic realities of our time appear to have little to offer them.

Most Americans, on the other hand, want to hold on to their expectations and their beliefs that they are continuing to live in an age of advancement. However, the era of expectations aroused by power, scale and speed in the 20th century no longer are valid. Compared to the optimistic expectations of the 20th century the more modest advances being made in the 21st “raises a critical question about the nation’s future prosperity.”2 There are now few who have expectations that the great days for the economy lie ahead. Robert Gordon in his book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, expects that the labor force will not fare well while the baby boomers get older and the supply of female workers flattens. Meanwhile there are fears that the growing concentration of income in the hands of the top tenth of one percent of the population will continue to rise while the bottom 99 percent will hardly improve. This may well result in the massive growth of negative economic expectations including those of more bank failures, flat growth curves, saturated markets, as well as dangerous pollution levels.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, populations around the world developed linear expectations for the improved material aspects of life. The revolution of rising expectations caused desperate people living on the land to leave their roots to find a better life in the cities. Their short-term economic aspirations have led to ever rising expectations. Nothing arouses expectations as much as the steady digital transmission of flowing images of the wealthy environments and riches in the advanced nations. From the urban slums and favelas, viewing the clothes, food, housing and automobiles in western films arouse desires and hitherto unimagined expectations that they now will struggle to fulfill.

All humanity strives to meet such basic needs as nourishment, water, clothing, housing, security, and sustainability. However, the population explosion of the 20th century has augmented the number of people desiring the material benefits of capitalism which they have been unable to reach. Their expectations also have gone into reverse: the winds of despair are blowing from every direction. The environmental challenges of air and water pollution, floods, cyclones, acid rains, and oil spills are all enhancing their negativity and doubts about their chances for advancement. Even small goals seem out of reach. Negative expectations do not lead to progress. They often encourage violence and revolt.

There are systems scientists who would like to strike a balance between positive and negative trends though a globally integrated social, cultural and technological approach. However, this is not going to cope with the essence of our expectations as human beings. After all, most of our expectations are self-imposed. We have basic expectations of being understood, of being heard, as well as having privacy. We want to be successful, but being successful often requires living up to huge expectations we set for ourselves.

Looking around me, I wonder whether our expectations are often preventing us from actually enjoying life? Do expectations not restrict our imaginations, limit surprise, deny the mysterious? Many of us suffer from expecting perfection or demands from talents or abilities which we do not possess.

There are times we must overcome the challenges of some of our expectations. Setting up expectations for oneself and then seeing oneself as a failure for not meeting them is unworthy. Even worse are the unrealistic expectations which involve setting up nearly impossible goals which are then abandoned — even before any efforts are made, because of gnawing self doubts.

Letting go of our self-imposed expectations can often set us free to live our lives by exploring its incredible possibilities which may stimulate our own potentials. The point is to decrease the scope of our expectations, not to lower them. Michelangelo reputedly said: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our goal.” Indeed we must recognize that the best of the arts and the sciences have been dependent throughout the ages on the exceptional fulfillment of human expectations.


 

1Larry Elliott, “An economic model that’s creaking with age,” The Guardian, February 15, 2016

1Eduardo Porter “Living in an era of reduced expectations,” The New York Times, January 20, 2016.

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93. Optimistic Directions

It is hard some mornings to get back on track. Hearing a recording of Louis Armstrong this morning urging me to step “On the sunny side of the street” delivered a powerful surge of optimism. Yes, change is inevitable and some of it is distracting and painful, but the optimistic approach to life remains essential. If we are bent on redefining the boundaries of the possible, as is much of Silicon Valley, then optimism is one defining source of energy.

Martin Seligman, a psychologist who pioneered the study of positive psychology, examined the ways optimism improves the immune system, prevents chronic disease, and helps us to cope with bad news. There is now recognition that changes in the level of optimism can lead to more positive results. It can improve our entire approach to life.

In the twentieth century, parents living in the technologically-advanced nations were assisted by the hopeful expectation that the life of their children would be an improvement on their own. Indeed, they had expectations well beyond those of previous generations, but these improvements occurred on such a scale that in many ways they began to transform our planet. Indeed, our outlook now is recognizing the importance of increasing such optimism:

  • We are no longer in denial: the gravity of the impact of pollution is finally being accepted and genuine steps, such as the commitments made in Paris in December, are being taken seriously in order to try and reduce threats to the environment.
  • Greater economic equality for women is now high on the agenda. Today it is being promoted in much of the world. In areas like education and medicine, women are at the forefront of their professions. Many are now in top executive positions. Hurrah!
  • The internet has exploded as a revolutionary agent of communication. It has become the driving force behind globalization, information, understanding, reporting, economics and even education. Its overwhelming power is such that we are not yet able to fully comprehend all the implications. It is transforming not only our lives but our entire culture. Optimists now hope that it will successfully introduce transparency in areas where secrecy has been the rule.
  • Capitalism is no longer seen as our economic future. It is coming under increasingly serious attack from the younger generation. This has been demonstrated by the victory of Corbyn in the UK and the vote in New Hampshire for Bernie Sanders. At long last capitalism is being recognized as a threat not only in terms of inequality or jobs, but also in terms of its effects on the environment and its corruption of the democratic process. The young clearly see that capitalism’s focus on profits at the expense of morality, ethics, justice, and equality have had serious consequences not only on our political foundations but even on eroding family life. Capitalism’s materialism has proved neither satisfying nor sustainable. I am filled with optimism because the aspirations of the young will be at the forefront of tomorrow’s impending changes. A more cooperative and less competitive economic system is in the making. I outlined such an alternative, which I described as a technology-driven ‘Incentive Economy’ in my book Dollars or Democracy, (2004).1The world will have to learn how to live without capitalism.

Understandably, political ‘conservatives’ have become increasingly opposed to both the speed and direction of change. However, because of their philosophical outlook — which is about going back to previous stages of our socioeconomic/technological development, they cannot offer any programmed alternative to the direction in which mankind is moving. Looking backward is not the way to move forward. It does not promote optimism. Conservatives see the state as an ever-growing and threatening octopus which will strangle liberty, freedom and choice. As the sociologist Daniel Bell, observed ironically “The nation-state is becoming too small for the big problems of life, and too big for the small problems.” Optimists like myself counter that big and small must be brought together in a more cooperative manner.

Technology has advanced beyond nearly everyone’s expectations over the past two decades (or indeed over the past two centuries!) It continues to promise unending marvels for tomorrow, but here I contend optimistically that we must not let it runaway at such a speed as to destroy everything we hold dear, starting with ourselves. In terms of our physical and cranial make-up we are genetically identical to our ancestors of 10,000 BC, but perhaps not for much longer. Optimism must incorporate rational thinking. Technology will make genetic modifications feasible in this century. I don’t propose halting technological advance, but we must balance it with a vision of a future in which our social and physical structures are not overwhelmed.

There is a strong conviction among free-market advocates that society resembles an organic process with its own life and development. Interfering with such a process could serve to stunt the natural course of events and might end in disaster. My answer to such objections is that I see society much as I see children: with the right education and positive and optimistic approaches there are many ways in which they can be directed. If you encourage them, praise them selectively, and develop their self-esteem and aspirations, they will have a far better chance of achieving their advancement than if you simply leave them to fend for themselves. The same perspective applies for the positive advancement of mankind.

If we look back at how swiftly the world has progressed in the last century, in which the contagious ideals of ‘liberal democracy’ swept the world, imagine how far we could move in the next two generations if we could accept the ideal of cooperation over that of competitive capitalism. It is possible for us to reconnect our personal desires and aspirations with a larger human purpose of which we are all a part. This means that while we improvise along the way, we also must introduce a more planned approach. (Alas, much of humanity seems to resist the application of any blueprints worked out in advance by thinkers and intellectuals.) Piecemeal or patchwork reforms to our social services have typically led to unexpected problems that have made the systems more difficult and costly to fix. For example, in both the US and the UK, we need a more comprehensive vision of how best to deliver the medical services we need. I am optimistic we can do this.

I firmly believe we can best relate to the world as optimists, not as pessimists, jokers, nor as rationalists or mere realists. The joker can turn things around or upside down with a laugh. Some pessimists may indeed be capable of shrugging-off the worst news with: ”I knew this was going to happen!” The realist does not see events in terms of positive or negative and operates with a minimum of pre-set expectations — which can then be met. The optimist can view the world through rose-tinted glasses and will interpret most events from a positive perspective. In doing this the optimists not only believe this will turn things around in their favor but will actually be inspired to make them succeed. The power of optimism is enormous. It helps to counter our fears and assists us in developing essential longer range perspectives.

Most of us now accept there is a strong link between optimism and psychological well-being. This does not mean that it can or should stop us from worrying about threats like environmental pollution, jihad terrorism, or nuclear errors. Optimists look beyond the here and now and accept the need to take action to prevent the worst from happening. When trying to achieve such goals optimism does not always demand success. Optimists accept failures and learn from what went wrong and why. This means, we believe in trying again.

Finally, the strong links between optimism and psychological well-being must be exploited: Love, gifts of tenderness, caring, compassion, mothering and understanding are there within us. With every act of kindness and charity, with every virtue, we become stronger and develop. With every meaning we give to expressions of love, we help to make our world more humane. Understanding shown to a child, praise given to a colleague, kindness rendered to a stranger, or a promise kept to a friend, all touch those with whom we are in contact and may in some way uplift them. Ultimately, all such positive acts can assist in feeding our capacity for optimism.2 Let us all lend a hand in making this happen.


 

1Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy, A Technology Driven Alternative to Capitalism (2004)

2Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium, Optimistic Visions for Change (1997)