People like being around other happy people. People don’t like being around negative people. This is because we all seek well being, one where we feel good, feel like we have a purpose, and live meaningful lives. Happy people, by definition, are successful because they are leading happy lives, and being around happy people increases your chances of being happy. Being around people laughing increases your chances of laughing, and laughing is good.
Pessimism, as defined on Google is “a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen; a lack of hope or confidence in the future.” Considering all the great there is in the world, and all the progress we’ve made in the last couple hundreds years, the question is why are so many people pessimistic?
I’ve written before about how the media affects the mood and feeling of the people who consume it. Even though by almost every metric we live in a better, healthier, happier, wealthier world than at any other time in human history, many people think the world is more dangerous and worse than ever before. This is driven in large part by the news, which in modern day enables worldwide catastrophes to be broadcasted in real time to people all over the world. This is a new trend, and it wasn’t always possible to see news like it is today. The media is incentivized to broadcast sad, tragic, graphic, and scary news because scary news captures human attention, and they make money by capturing our attention, not by telling us what we should or need to know about how amazing the world actually is (?).
Without knowing how the media and modern technology works, pessimism makes sense. It feels like the world could be worse off. But as I’ve written about before, overcoming our default state – our innate human intuitions – is what leads to us becoming conscious people, and better conscious people. Knowing that our intuitions can often misguide us is important, and overcoming them can lead us to be more realistic when we realize that our intuitions are misguided. It enables us to become optimistic when we’d otherwise be pessimistic.
So why be optimistic? To start, being optimistic feels good. It makes you excited about the future, grateful for the moment, and privileged to exist today. But there are other benefits than just feeling good…
– Optimists are healthier and tend to live longer (?)
– Optimistics are less likely to get sick (?)
– Optimists make better partners (?)
– Optimists are perform better at their jobs (?)
– Optimists get more promotions and job offers (?)
– Optimists handle stress better than pessimists (?)
All of this shouldn’t come as a surprise, if you’re optimistic and you feel good, you’re more likely to take care of yourself, treat others better, be a positive person, and that attracts a better social circle, which is a key indicator and perhaps the most valuable aspect of living a good life (the longest study on happiness at Harvard ranked it as the #1 most important metric).
There is evidence that optimistic people present a higher quality of life compared to those with low levels of optimism or even pessimists. Optimism may significantly influence mental and physical well-being by the promotion of a healthy lifestyle as well as by adaptive behaviours and cognitive responses, associated with greater flexibility, problem-solving capacity and a more efficient elaboration of negative information.
– US National Library of Health
Optimists tend to view anything adverse as temporary, specific and external whilst pessimists will view an adverse situation as permanent, pervasive and personal. These two styles produce very different outcomes. Source: Psychology Today
What about the unknowns of the world? What about the daunting challenges we face as a society? Should we remain optimistic when things look cloudy? Yes. In situations where we don’t know what an outcome will be or we’re missing too many details to draw a fair conclusion, optimism is almost always better. This is two-fold – if you’re optimistic and see problems as solvable (Beginning of Infinity), you’re far more likely to solve them than if you see problems as impossible to overcome and give up. Secondly, optimism has tremendous benefits, so why not side on more beneficial end? Kant had a theory in philosophy: since many philosophical discussions don’t have a “right” answer, he argues to choose the side with most utility. That is to say to choose the most useful side during the unknown. Since so many things in life we don’t know, striving for optimism makes the most rational sense.
You find what you’re looking for. If you look for all the negatives in the world, you’ll find them. If you look for all the positives, you’ll find them. And expectations influence outcomes. They influence not only your perception, but very likely the outcome because your perceptions affect your actions. Being optimistic and positive far increases your chances of finding the good in the world, whether it be good people, good places, or just a good feeling. Optimism is key.
So in todays world what and how much should we be optimist about? The answer….nearly everything.
I recently finished reading Enlightenment Now, which is an excellent book written by the incredible Steven Pinker of Harvard. He puts forward a sound perspective on science and reason which has created progress. Progress at what? Progress at maximizing human flourishing, maximizing well being, reducing suffering, all core values of a humanistic view. It is well worth the time to read, and if for no other reason, it will lead to be more optimistic about the state of the world, even if you already are optimistic.
Subjective Feeling vs Objective Truth
One of the big fallacies I think many people make in modern day is that they take their subjective view of reality and then assume it’s how the rest of the society or the rest of the world is. For example, imagine you live in a town of 200,000 people and you notice most of your friends are chronically depressed, and a large amount of strangers you meet throughout your town express their concern about depression and how they also feel depressed. A common conclusion to therefore draw is that society is broken and depression is a major issue. The fallacy with this is that you’re relying on your intuitions about the state of society and using your subjective experience to therefore conclude that objectively society is broken. However, you can easily look up various stats and studies to see objectively what the actual state of affairs is, and it is more often than not quite different than you subjectively may feel. The world is diverse, and we can learn a lot by studying other cultures, places, and people.
This is why a book like Enlightenment Now is well worth your time, because it objectively looks at many aspects of society to see how it is performing, progressing, and changing, regardless of anyones specific subjective feelings. Pinker looks at worldwide data to show how collectively society is improving in almost every metric we care about – human flourishing, well being, reduced suffering, scientific progress, knowledge, education, etc. The only way to make rational conclusions and decisions about life is to objectively understand what is working and what isn’t, and learn from the studies and data we have at our disposal. If subjectively things feel pessimistic, a simple environmental change could change ones perspective, and lead to optimism.
How to be more optimistic
Changing from a pessimistic mindset to an optimistic one isn’t easy. Start with these tips:
- Educate yourself about the problems we face, and the progress we’ve made (Enlightenment Now is a start).
- Proactively work on solving some of the world’s challenges. Seeing progress made is important, but actively helping solve the issues we face is more important.
- Reframe how you define events – try to find the good in every situation, even at difficult moments. Look for the good in the world, not the bad. Life is all about perspective and you see what you think/believe.
Understand that problems are solvable, and for each problem we solve, more will come. Read “Beginning of Infinity”.
- Meditate, be mindful – focus on the here and now.
- Notice negative self talk or complaints you make. Set a timer, and each time you notice yourself complain (or get called out about complaining), reset the timer. See how many hours you can go.
- Focus on what you can control in life. Recognize when something isn’t within your control, and avoid letting it affect you (see meditation point above). Read “A Guide to a Good Life” on Stoic philosophy.
- Pursue self-growth, work on improving everyday. Small steps each day add up to a lot, it’s compound interest of the mind/body. Help others, benefit society. Strive to be better each day and solve the challenges we face as a society.
- Strive to have positive experiences. Seek things you enjoy and find joy in others.
- Be healthy. Sleep well, eat well, and stay active. The better you feel, the more positive outlook you’ll have in life.
Life is a string of the stories we tell ourselves. It’s better to tell great stories. Be optimistic.