Optimism ~ Radical Act or Magical Thinking?

Recently I discovered a quote that grabbed my attention.
According to Alex Steffens, co-founder of WorldChanging.com, who was described in the New York Times as a “designing optimist,”  “Optimism is a political act.”

If you’re spending time online these days, you may be caught between headlines like the upbeat promise to Break Free of Your Struggles in 2 Steps and the dire IPCC report, Climate Change a Threat to Food, Security & Mankind.
The inner conflict between world views brings me back to exploring some basic questions about the nature of optimism, pessimism and the actions they propel. I’ve written before about cynicism and positive thinking but unrelentingly grim news compels me to revisit this territory. 
Steffens’ bold statement raises interesting questions. Don’t get sidetracked by the term political – this is not about partisan politics. Steffens, I believe, is talking about the status quo – whatever it is. Our institutions and systems are badly broken and the paralysis of pessimism isn’t going to fix or transform them.
Steffens is arguing that the very nature of  the conversation about optimism is driven by status quo thinking.  We either believe that we can solve the world’s most pressing problems (and everything in-between) or we can’t.
Steffens believes that “entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we can do matters, that issues are too complex to present even the opportunity for change.  It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over; as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful – cynicism is obedience.”

In Steffen’s model, the status quo benefits from confusion. “I’m more and more convinced that the instrumentalism in the absence of committed vision always serves the politics of impossibility.”
Given the power of institutional culture, how is our thinking about what’s possible being shaped? What are business, government and big data telling us about change and what is possible?
While we’re busy identifying with the optimism vs. pessimism tribes we’re missing endless opportunities to develop our resiliency skills and build communities that can incubate ideas and implement change.
Most of what’s written about optimism falls in the for-or-against category. We’re concerned that our “optimism bias” is clouding our judgments and lulling us into false senses of hope. We’re concerned that being optimistic will lead us into believing the promises of a hyperbolic self-help culture.  Too many of us tend towards the extremes of either-or thinking
We’re up against huge planetary challenges yet we’re still debating whether it’s possible to personally change.  We can acknowledge that change is hard and still make the choice to change. It starts with our thinking.
Whether you identify yourself as an optimist, pessimist, rationalist optimist, realist, optimistic-realist, thinking optimist or pessimistic-realist, everything relies on your beliefs. Beliefs are at the core of what drives your feelings and motivates your behavior.

Pessimism is No Longer Sustainable

If you’d like some insight into the beliefs of pessimists check out the comments sections of any online article that discusses optimism. Along with the usual passionate pro and con voices, there are many that sound downright depressed. While I agree with  Steffen’s point that some of this darkness comes from legitimate despair, barring clinical depression or neurological impediment, most people are capable of making different choices and act on them. Unfortunately, many people have not developed the emotional resiliency required to respond to life’s challenges with greater flexibility. Avoidance is not a skill-building strategy.
Turns out that George Orwell, the man who presaged the dangers of a national security state in his brilliant book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was an optimist.  Many fans of the iconic book don’t like that idea one bit. They see it as a flaw, a weakness of Orwell’s character. But Orwell saw more danger in apathy, denial and pessimistic thinking. “Pessimism,”
he wrote, “is reactionary because it makes the very idea of improving the world impossible.”
Critics of optimism are concerned that we not fall into the trap of “unthinking” optimism because it can lead to complacency, myopia and heaven forbid – disappointment.  We’re warned that our optimism should be tempered with caution. Cautious optimism lets us keep a foot in each camp – a kind of partial belief in positive outcomes while we keep the other  foot on the brake as a form of self-protection.
Writing in her life-affirming book, The Green Boat, author Mary Pipher tells us, “In our tempestuous times, we can be vibrant, authentic and emotionally healthy people. The new healthy normal requires the ability to move from awareness to action on a regular basis, to maintain balance and to live intentionally. It also requires a particular kind of optimism, a connection to community and a world-class set of stress-reduction skills.”

Developing our emotional resiliency may be the most important thing we can do to address every challenge we face in the 21st century.
Since no amount of denial or neglect will eliminate the realities of climate change or a negative medical prognosis the deeper question is  how should we respond? How much power do we believe we have over the choices we make?  Studies show that optimism is a choice.  Regardless of whether we describe our “nature” as positive or stoic, we can shift our thinking – and consequently – how we act in response
Brain Pickings’ founder, Maria Popova, who often writes about the scientific basis of optimism points out, “The problem with pessimistic expectations is that they have the power to alter the future, negative expectations shape outcomes in a negative way. Not everyone agrees with this assertion. Some believe the secret to happiness is low expectations. If we don’t expect greatness or find love or maintain health or achieve success, we will never be disappointed. It’s a good theory – but it’s wrong. Research shows that whatever the outcome, whether we succeed or fail-people with high expectations tend to feel better. At the end of the day, how we feel when we get dumped or win an award depends mostly on how we interpret the event

What about Einstein, Mandela and Martin Luther King?

Few of us will surmount the odds that Mandela, Einstein, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others did by following their vision – but we are grateful that they did.We’re  relieved they weren’t pessimists.  It’s hard to imagine the world today without their accomplishments. Did Dr. King believe he could end racism in his lifetime? No – but he did believe he could catalyze others to take steps to change polices that seemed immutable at the time.
The “reality” is that average people overcome enormous obstacles (emotional, financial, and physical) every day. These unsung heroes have one thing in common – they expect a better future.  When people don’t believe in a better future, despair is a logical choice – and despair changes nothing.
As for me, I end this article with a declaration of aligning myself with the forces of optimism that have guided me most of my life. I stand with Steffen’s vision, Our best hope lies in a fighting optimism, an optimism that’s willing to confront the impossibility lobby and its messengers and make very clear that a feeble, halting response is not the rational or responsible response. Every time we explain how a better future might be built, we redraw the boundaries of the possible.”

And on those days that the winds of pessimism blow through me, I will remind myself that resiliency is a process. I’m working on it.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Related Articles: Building Resiliency through Emotional Awareness, Positive vs. Negative Thinking: It Isn’t Either-Or Redefining Optimism in the Face of Reality 


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful, timely post, Louise. The road I am currently travelling with chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer doesn’t naturally lead me to optimism. Optimism, when you are predisposed to apathy or pessimism due to the drugs, is something you have to cultivate on a minute by minute basis in order to survive the treatment. I’m finding even small acts like blogging about my experiences (www.epiphanycommunication.com.au/blog) can be quite subversive to the status quo of the medicos. They look at physical ramifications as opposed to emotional ones which are far more concerning in my book. Thanks again – love your work.

    • Hi Jenny
      I so appreciate your taking the time and energy to respond and share your experience.
      Reading your post The Dalai Lama in my Letterbox, http://epiphanycommunication.com.au/2014/03/the-dalai-lama-in-my-letterbox/ you talk about the power of beliefs. I, like so many others,
      have struggled with my own self-defeating ones over the years. The ones I am still learning to let go of almost always have to do with the collective beliefs of “status quo” thinking. They
      seem so compelling but always feel awful, even in their certainty. It is, a moment to moment choice to let go and align myself with something higher.
      While I am grateful for the drugs and treatment that are healing dear people like you and many others, I am even more grateful for your understanding of the importance of your emotional state.
      May you ride out the waves of those moments of pessimism and be led back to a stronger and more joyous place.
      Blessings on the journey.

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