Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference.—Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny
In many ways, the world is a terrible place. Hundreds of millions of people live in extreme poverty, billions of farm animals endure lives of unbroken misery, species are going extinct at an alarming rate, and the Earth’s climate is a worsening mess. And, although we may seek to improve the world, our efforts are often frustrated by the impliability of human nature. Standards of living increase but we recalibrate, finding new ways to be anxious, lonely and depressed. Technology improves but frequently backfires, co-opted by our more perverse motives. And, as people become impatient with the repeated stumblings of modernity, they turn to backward-looking ideologies, threatening moral progress that once seemed indisputable.
In light of all this, it’s easy to be a pessimist. If we’ve progressed this far only to wind up unhappy while destroying the planet, one might understandably ask: what’s the point of the modern experiment? Isn’t it time to give up already? Indeed, there’s no shortage of cynics who think this way. Fringe cults and radical religions have long held that the modern world is irredeemable, best left to wither away. And mainstream voices are increasingly echoing such sentiments, framing political issues in terms of zero-sum pessimism or downright fatalism.
The allure of pessimism is both natural and understandable. Human beings disproportionately focus on negative outcomes because, as Paul Bloom writes, “these are the events that we most need to prepare for.” In any task, there are more ways to fail than to succeed, and, by persistently focusing on the possibility of failure, we can better equip ourselves to stave it off. Unfortunately, this functional quirk inclines many of us towards constant negativity. Combine our negativity bias with the tragic character of much of existence, and we have a limitless number of reasons to despair. However, just because pessimism is natural does not mean it’s excusable, especially when it shades into despondency.
Societies—and individuals—improve by perpetually tweaking entirely natural drives and desires. Sometimes we endorse these drives, as in the enjoyment of sports or cuisine. At other times, we constrain them, with justice systems and ever-changing social norms. Modern civilization is a massive game in which we draw out some facets of human nature while suppressing others, often for better but sometimes for worse. One of these facets, which is frequently promoted but actually causes much misery, is our penchant for unfettered pessimism.
Pessimism is a valued attribute in much of today’s discourse, signaling that one is woke, mature and aware. In some circles, it is praised as a lofty virtue, while optimism is vilified as dangerous superstition. This is because many people think, mistakenly, that to be a realist one must also be a pessimist. In this light, optimism is little more than a dangerous license used to justify laissez-faire attitudes towards pressing issues. After all, if things seem rosy, why worry?
Admittedly, the cynics have a point, in that too much optimism can indeed lead to complacency. No doubt, the Oprah-brand style of positive thinking has led countless people to neglect making meaningful changes in their lives. But outside of New Age circles, how many of us actually suffer from an overabundance of optimism? Looking at news sites, scrolling through Twitter or asking friends how they feel about the future of humanity, one tends to find little optimism. In fact, one might start to wonder whether our discomfort with optimism is yet another consequence of our dominant negativity bias.
Since pessimism runs rampant throughout society, we should not fear a bit of optimism. Progressives who are fatalistic about progress, conservatives who are jaundiced towards progressivism and prigs who fear free speech all pose a threat to societal progress not because they are unduly optimistic, but because they’re entranced by pessimism. If anything, pessimism—not optimism—is the real danger we face today.
Without optimism, we cannot hope to improve. By incessantly focusing on the bad, we lose the ability to skillfully balance trade-offs, which are crucial to progress in any variegated civilization. As a result, we become puritans, unable to coolly appraise new, potentially threatening ideas. This puritanical streak is visible across the political spectrum. Take, for instance, the anti-capitalist left and the radical free market right. Both sides, ever pessimistic, manage to ignore the established benefits of a regulated market system, while advocating for an inferior—albeit undiluted—substitute.
Without optimism, we lack the trust required to cooperate with strangers, the hope needed to pursue ambitious goals, and the gratitude that impels us to give back to societies that have given us so much. In other words, without optimism, we lack the traits upon which our successes, however imperfect, have been founded. In our pessimism, we become like the stereotypical liberal arts undergrad, who, enamored with criticism, never pauses to appreciate the mundane miracle that is modern civilization, and instead wishes to burn it all to the ground.
Without optimism, it matters little how good, objectively, our lives are, because wellbeing is determined subjectively. Our imaginations have gifted us with incredible works of art, systems of cooperation and technologies, which have vastly improved the human condition. Unfortunately, these same imaginations have allowed us to remain unhappy regardless of circumstance. Numerous clichés speak to this sorry truth, implicitly stressing the importance of optimism: the grass is always greener on the other side; you always want what you can’t have; you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Without optimism, we are doomed to flounder as we navigate through an ambiguity-laden world. Just about everything worth caring about is open to multiple interpretations, and those we choose guide the quality of our lives. Where ambiguity exists, it is often a skillful move to focus on the good (without blinding oneself to the bad). For example, we can choose to view human motivation as a selfish, surreptitious attempt to gain status and influence over others. Or we can view it as the outpouring of our desire for respect and connectedness. Because brains are multi-modal and human motivation is complex, both of these interpretations are generally true. But, by operating solely under the former, we’re apt to become bitter misanthropes, hobbled in our ability to enjoy our time as social animals. By resolving ambiguity in favor of optimism, we can improve our lives without needing to sacrifice any intellectual honesty.
And finally, without optimism, we can never find wisdom. Though a diehard pessimist may be right about many things, wisdom goes beyond simply getting the facts straight. Genuine wisdom is not the result of what one thinks is true; rather, it’s how one deals with what one thinks is true. Truth often stings, as it forces us to confront the fact that reality is, at base, unfair. Many people avoid this fact, adopting various religions and mythologies to explain away the world’s rough edges. Others are broken by it, letting their pessimism slide further into fatalism with every unwelcome truth. But a wise person, by skillfully titrating their attitude with optimism, can confront the cold truths of existence and emerge unscathed. Viewed this way, optimism is not opposed to realism—instead, it’s essential to it.
Of course, few people can become optimists on a whim. Our brains and associated neurochemistry are simply not that malleable, and life’s challenges are often daunting. But, by understanding the compatibility between optimism, integrity and overall wellbeing, we can make optimism more likely. Given our tendency to spend much of life alienated by recursive negativity that serves no higher purpose, this is a worthwhile endeavor.