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)