106. Optimism versus Pessimism in Our Rapidly Evolving World

Optimism is essential. It starts from a belief in oneself which gradually extends to a belief in others. Optimism is at the basis of a belief in the future. If the future is to be more than mere hope, it demands an active and engaged commitment in which risk is almost always involved. This risk taking demands self-confidence, and a willingness to take chances and pay the price.

My earliest expressions of optimism were certainly nourished by the influential way it was expressed by both my mother and father. My optimism was aroused by a realization that I could amuse others. My facial expressions could even change the mood in a room. This, in turn, affected me and gave me a sense of confidence to continue. Eventually, such expression of the positive, of hopes, was to lead to a more generalized personal optimism.

But in a world infected by pessimism this was not easy. Escaping from the horrors of a detention camp in WWII and arriving with my family as a refugee in New York at the age of ten could have led to highly negative reactions. Just learning to speak English was both frustrating and exhausting, but the affirmative American diet strengthened my determination to succeed.

Decades later I had gathered enough courage to write my most serious book, Optimistic Visions for Change. This did not do much to change the world, but it sufficiently intrigue the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees to invite me to a series of lunches at which he tried to find out more about the nature of my optimism: where it had come from, how solid it was, and what could it lead to. This great scientist truly sought to enhance his optimism about the challenging world in which we live.

The power of optimism is enormous, as is the power of pessimism. It is evident how an optimistic mood in the stock market can spur advances on a broad front while a pessimistic trend can result in a plunge. As human beings we prefer to act in unison with others rather than to cope alone or in isolation. Because this holds true for both optimists and pessimists, it has a strong impact on politics, economics, and our social contacts. We have seen this most recently in the economic consequences of the Brexit vote in the UK and the extraordinary swings in the electoral process in the US.

The basically negative approach by Donald Trump depended on arousing popular fear, hatred, and the desire for revenge, while Hillary took the optimistic path of change for the better. The competition of the two approaches was wrenching, but it is also universal. Writing in the Economist, “Schumpeter” suggested that the business world is also divided between pessimists and optimists:
“Some of the world’s best business people are giddy with optimism. They live in a world of digital wonders where every problem has a solution and every scarcity is yielding to abundance. Others are haunted by pessimism. They live in a world of “secular stagnation”, jobless growth, zero-sum completion and stability-threatening inequality.”1 The truth is that pessimists expect their nightmares to come true while the optimists hope for their dreams to be realized.

Ever since grade school I have found pessimism a repulsive social position, but I admit to being intrigued in later years to understand philosophical pessimism. It is true that throughout history the approach of pessimism has had an impact on all trends of thought. However, the skepticism which pessimists hold, that our efforts cannot actually improve the human condition, goes against my most firmly held beliefs. Pessimists contend that every step forward has been followed by a step back and that such oscillation is basically unfruitful. Philosophical pessimists have often turned into existential nihilists who doubt that life has intrinsic meaning.

One of the greatest philosophic pessimists was Friedrich Nietzsche who called his more life-affirming view a “Dionysian pessimism.” He developed this approach from the pessimism of the pre-Socratic Greeks which was at the core of their great tragedies. Nietzsche viewed the optimism of Socratic philosophy as an optimistic refuge for those Athenians who had come to reject the overdose of the tragic. To the Socratic proposition that wisdom could lead to happiness, Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy (1886) responded that this was “morally speaking, a sort of cowardice… amorally, a ruse.” To counteract this kind of escapism, Nietzsche proposed a total embrace of the nature of this world, a “great liberation” through a “pessimism of strength” which “does not sit in judgment of this decision.” To achieve this status, such “creative” pessimism had to be used like a hammer, attacking the basis of old beliefs and moralities, so that our philosophers could fly with “a new pair of wings.” Such Nietzschian pessimism would say “yes” to the forever changing nature of life on this planet and urged us to suffer joyfully while embracing Wagnerian destruction. My reaction to first reading about this was: No wonder the Nazis loved Nietzsche!

More recently, the campaign of Donald Trump made me realize that pessimists generally do not take to facts. Pessimists are likely to see negative events as permanent, pervasive and uncontrollable, while optimists tend to see downturns as temporary and changeable. Martin Seligman in his book, Learned Optimism (1990) explained that pessimistic thinkers generally take negative positions to heart. Some environmentalists who, like James Lovelock, are not philosophical pessimists do believe that our planet’s ecology has already been irretrievably damaged and that no revolutionary shift in politics can save it. The existence of 7 billion people, all aiming for the comforts publicized on their mobiles, is not compatible with the economy, the homeostasis of climate, or the chemistry and biology of this planet. As Lovelock said: “humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good.” His perspective is not far from those technological pessimists who believe that advances in science and technology will not lead to any improvement in the human condition.

While I recognize the pessimism of Lovelock, as well as that of technological pessimists, I have found that being optimistic usually allows me to pursue my own goals more successfully. Positive thoughts help me to enhance the activities in which I may be engaged with a broader optimism. Studies by various sociologists suggest there is a strong link between optimism and psychological well-being. A close correlation between optimism and happiness, life satisfaction and physical well being is now broadly accepted. Optimists apparently smoke less, drink alcohol more moderately, and eat more fruit, vegetables, and whole grain breads. As a consequence optimists enjoy increased life expectancy, greater recovery rates from heart operations, and increased success in sports.

Psychologists like Professor Suzanne Segerstrom claimed in 2006 that about 80% of people could be classified as optimistic, but back in 1990 a sociologist, Martin Seligman held that only 60% of people were somewhat optimistic.2 Both of these were in sharp contrast to past centuries in which only a very few people were able to hope that their future ever would be any better. It should increase our general optimism that in the past generation more than a billion people world-wide have been hauled out of extreme poverty. For those living in Europe and North America, medicine and technology combined to conquer diseases and extend life spans.

I have found it increasingly challenging to evoke my basic belief in optimism in a world steadily being changed by the advancing technologies in robotics, mobiles, computer engineering and bio-genetics. The advances are both undeniable and so fast that they are hard for many of us to manage. Indeed, one must ask whether this is ultimately good for humanity ? Optimists still think “yes” but a column in The Economist suggested that the sunny outlook which swept in after World War II is now turning pessimistic.3

I have to face up to it: Our destiny is no longer manifest. The desirability of advancing from hope to optimism is no longer self-evident. A dreary, somewhat fatalistic and dystopian outlook is spreading around the economically advanced nations of the world. Fatalists purport that as it is impossible to know what is going to happen, we should simply do our best and pray that the worst is not going to engulf us. Spiritually this debilitating outlook tends to erode the potential meaning of life.

For human beings, hope and meaning have become intertwined like the rings of the double helix. The sociologist Lionel Tiger, in his book on Optimism (1979), wrote that “As a mood, attitude and mode of perceiving life, optimism has been central to the process of human evolution; it determines to a degree not yet charted to the way humans think, play, and respond to birth and death.” Even though we can harbor enormous unease at the way things are turning out, we must have hopes about how things “could be.” Optimistically, we should open ourselves to the potentials of a new and brighter vision.

Optimism is frequently criticized because it exceeds reasonable boundaries, but that is exactly what we must do: Take a leap with our imaginations, soar with our hearts, and let what is finest in our spirits prevail. It should give us hope that we can creatively adapt ourselves to change, just as all other existing creations have through evolution. Positive feedback has been one of the very basic mechanisms of life. It should fill us with hope that bit-by-bit, we are unraveling the secrets of the universe as well of biology and that this ultimately will make our own existence more comprehensible.4 Optimism, however, does assume a belief in programmatic change. To those who deny this, a faith in the potential of amelioration appears unfounded.

In a world of 7 billion people, there will inevitably be a considerable percentage who find they share similar hopes, hold like-minded optimistic visions and who would be willing to take risks and endure hardships for the fulfillment of those dreams — if only they could unite and draw up a set of blueprints and manifestos. Science plays a large role in this. “What man does today and will do tomorrow is determined to a large extent by the techniques that expert knowledge puts at his disposal, and his dreams for the future reflect the achievements and promises of the scientists.”5 And one might add, to the promises offered by tomorrow’s robots… but will these ever be able to idealize?

The writer Irving Singer proposed that “Man would not be man unless he idealized, unless he constructed ideals of deliberate and imperative character that guide his life and give it a feeling of urgency as well as direction.”6 In this respect, both pessimists and optimists can use their differing view points to motivate themselves. Pessimists can help people reduce their natural anxiety and to perform better. Pessimists, who may be preoccupied with safety and security, also like to hear what the problems are so that they can work towards making corrections.7

I have often wondered why, when so many of the younger generation take euphoriants to improve their moods, governments have not shown greater interest in upgrading the levels of social optimism? Aldous Huxley suggested as much in his Brave New World (1932). Indeed, certain contemporary observers perceive optimism as a kind of dopamine which makes us see our own actions in a favorable, purposeful light. It is true that optimists tend to ignore the darker aspects of life and often attribute wrong-doing to ignorance.

My own optimistic vision is that in this new millennium a higher proportion of people could develop their own capacities to a far greater measure. Our hopes may be fragmentary but our optimism must be whole. We must do what we can to further an environment in which our hopes could collectively be transformed into optimism:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

The Prelude, William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

So to conclude this blog entry, I will go back to where I started, my own childhood — some 2000 words back! Critics may disparage both hope and optimism because they regard hope as the extension of the predominantly wishful thinking of childhood. Ironically, their rejection of hope then becomes a return to childhood’s way of sparing ourselves disappointment. I now see society much as I see the child: with the right education and approach there are any number of ways in which optimism can be realized. If you encourage the child, if you give selected praise, if you develop self-esteem and aspirations, you have a far better chance of achieving your goal than if you simply leave children to their own devices and let ‘life’ determine their fate. In this context, I find it optimistically encouraging to note how rapidly new generations can pick up an entirely new perspective: Ecology, for example, had hardly entered teen-age consciousness in the sixties, by the seventies it was being taught at the primary school level and today the supreme importance of clean air is finally recognized at a governmental level around the world. Yes, pessimists are moaning that it may well be too late.

1The Economist, January 31, 2015, p.66
2Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (1990)
3Schumpeter, “Techno Wars”, The Economist, October 22, 2016, p.64
4Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium, Optimistic Visions for Change (1996)
5Rene Jules Dubos, Mirage of Health (1959) p. 214
6Irving Singer, The Meaning of Life (1992) p.93
7Abigail Hazlett et al., Social Cognition (2011).

3 thoughts on “106. Optimism versus Pessimism in Our Rapidly Evolving World

  1. Thank you for this eloquent and important post, Yorick. I would love to have heard those lunchtime discussions with Lord Rees and wonder if there could be more of them. People need to hear your voice, especially now. This blog is a source of great inspiration to your readers.

  2. I don’t understand an analysis of optimism and pessimism in the abstract. An individual tries to understand objective conditions at any given time and., based on such attempt, comes to conclusions which may be optimistic or pessimistic. An optimistic attitude of a person being deported by the Nazis to a death camp is simply insanity. For most people it is their perception of reality as it changes from time to time which is the basis of optimistic or pessimistic views. Like the stock market, most individuals swing between optimism and pessimism and like the market, sometimes they are right and sometimes they are not.

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