My daughter has a special philosophy which she often applies to any new or anxious situation, such as her recent first day of school after the summer holidays. She has organized her school supplies, re-established contact with her closest buddies, and even talked to one friend a grade ahead of her to get the scoop on the pros and cons of Grade 8. But since she’s a bit nervous of the unknown, her strategy is to assume that things won’t go well; that way, if they indeed don’t go well, she’s not crushed, and if they do, she’s happy and grateful. Such thinking may be useful on a broader scale.
In recent weeks there seems to be a general consensus among economists that the global recession is coming to an end. Declines in GDP and trade are levelling off around the world, there have been fewer than expected job cuts, and banks have begun paying back public capital. Storm clouds are clearing and green shoots are appearing. But does that mean we should return to our era of blind optimism?
I realize that optimism is the raison d’être of mankind—without it, in this seemingly arbitrary world, we may long ago have let ourselves be eaten by sabertooth tigers. But over the centuries, pessimism has served as a levelling counterpoint. The pessimists had their heyday during the Middle Ages, but even during the rip-roaring Renaissance and era of exploration, philosophers like Voltaire tried to show the folly of misplaced optimism and encouraged us to tend our own garden. In the last half century, however, pessimism has become a dirty word, like “liberal” and other such frightening concepts.
Beginning with Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and reinforced by many other books including Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, optimism has become the buzz word of our era. Gone are the thinkers of the 20th century who, affected by the horrors of the two world wars, seriously doubted that the history of mankind was directional. Those of us who came afterward and have seen only growth and prosperity, feel a sense of entitlement to a better life and tend to view the glass as not just half full, but a mere stepping stone to the full jug. This attitude has an impact on us both personally and socially.
In our personal lives, the happy face has become the ubiquitous icon and the question, “How are you?” has only one right answer: “Fine.” Advertisements show young, successful, smiling faces with unblemished skin and healthy seniors with and the appetite and capacity for luxury living. This push to present an optimistic face leaves us no option to express our sadness, frustrations, fears, or other so-called negative feelings. As my husband once said when I told him to have a nice day: “Don’t put me under pressure.”
A recent study (done by Dr. Joanne Wood at the University of Waterloo, Canada) found that positive self-statements—a practice recommended by many self-help books—can actually have the opposite effect when repeated by someone with low self-esteem, because they are so mismatched with their self-image. Our mantra of optimism uber alles can also impact our attitude and our reaction to various broad social issues from education and poverty to economic crises and climate change. We talk boldly about progress on the road to India Shining, without noticing that half the population is not following us. We’ve run our huge financial industry optimistically assuming the efficient-markets hypothesis and ignoring the behavioral economists. We have indeed shopped till we have dropped.
Shakespeare said, “’Tis nothing good or bad, but thinking that makes it so,” but thinking can make or break us. A more balanced perspective, combining both optimism and pessimism, is needed for sustainable progress. Antonio Gramsci, Italian philosopher and political thinker, called it “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Al Gore said, “In order to be optimistic about this, we have to become incredibly active.”
We are not entitled to a better life, but we can be optimistic about the results of our actions to produce it.
This absurd notion of finding a middle path may be a fleeting thought and may not hold up in the enthusiasm of blinding optimism. However, my daughter did have a good first day at school and she is happy. The glass is half empty but, with sufficient effort, it could be made full.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and business editor, currently residing in Delhi and tending her own garden.