Why I’m Still an Optimist (Yes, Even in 2020)
Many believe that the world is objectively at its worst right now and that anyone who would say otherwise is stupid or ill-informed. To that, I’ll say you’re objectively wrong and, even if you were objectively right, you are still wrong to act in a pessimistic way.
I’m still an optimist (yes, even in 2020). And I’ll tell you why I refuse to succumb to pessimism and why everyone should be optimistic, even you.
Is Optimism Wrong?
In response to a poll question – “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse?” – only 6% of Americans said the world was getting better even though 90% of people are satisfied with their own lives. People think other people are suffering even though by and large people themselves are happy. Weird – people are very wrong even when they have themselves as anecdotes.
Fact: The world is getting BETTER. You can read Hans Rosling’s Factfulness (or watch any of his TED talks) or Steven Pinker’s Englightenment Now (or watch his TED talk). You can read articles from disparate sources like Vox, the BBC, the New Yorker, the WSJ, Forbes – all coming to the same conclusion – the world has improved and continues to get much better every day. You can also empirically look at Our World in Data or The Getting Better Foundation.
Reasons to Be Optimistic
I’m not saying there aren’t problems in the world. There are tons of problems. But I don’t understand how people can’t see the major strides we have made in the world. If you’re reading this, you’re probably too rich and safe to know or care, because many of the strides hit the poorest and most vulnerable, but I’m here to tell you – we are making huge advances. Here are just a few little tidbits:
- Poverty – Every day, 137,000 people climb out of extreme poverty and that rate has been consistent for the past 25 years. Every day 325,000 people gain access to electricity, and 300,000 gain access to clean drinking water.
- Literacy – In 1800, 9 in 10 people could not read. Today, more than 8 out of 10 people are able to read.
- Life/Death – The number of deaths from natural disasters is 25% of what it was 100 years ago. Between 1900 and 1999, Americans became 96 percent less likely to be killed in a car crash, 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job, and 89 percent less likely to be killed by a natural disaster thanks to advancements in infrastructure. In the 1990s, the U.S. saw its homicide rate plunge by half in just 9 years. In New York City, it dropped 75% in the same time. The control of infectious disease since 1990 has saved the lives of more than a 100 million children.
- Racism – American Blacks and Whites are now three times more likely to marry than in 1980. Say what you will about racist attitudes, but choosing to marry someone of a different race is hard to fake.
- Women and Children’s Rights– In 1986, there were 85.1 girls enrolled in primary and secondary school for every 100 boys. In 2016, that number rose to 99.7 girls for every 100 boys. Child labor declined 40% from 2000 to 2016. Teen births have plummeted 51% from 2007 to 2017.
Is Optimism Stupid?
Do I have to tell you the benefits of optimism? Optimistic people are more likely to live longer, more resilient to setbacks, have lower rates of depression, and have a stronger immune system and network of friends. Or don’t you just know instinctively that it’s more fun to be around optimistic people – to plan fun adventures rather than worrying about the worst that could happen? Optimistic people experience more luck than pessimists. Further, optimists do the work to effect positive change in the world.
I think about Megan McArdle‘s wonderful article, “After 45 Birthdays, Here Are ’12 Rules for Life'”:
Somewhere around that same eighth-grade mark where we all experimented with being mean, we get the idea that believing in things makes you a sucker — that good art is the stuff that reveals how shoddy and grasping people are, that good politics is cynical, that “realism” means accepting how rotten everything is to the core.
The cynics aren’t exactly wrong; there is a lot of shoddy, grasping, rottenness in the world. But cynicism is radically incomplete. Early modernist critics used to complain about the sanitized unreality of “nice” books with no bathrooms. The great modernist mistake was to decide that if books without sewers were unrealistic, “reality” must be the sewers. This was a greater error than the one it aimed to correct. In fact, human beings are often splendid, the world is often glorious, and nature, red in tooth and claw, also invented kindness, charity and love. Believe in that.
What If Everyone Was a Pessimist?
Ok so you’re down in the dumps – but that’s totally ok right? Isn’t everyone? Shouldn’t everyone be? What does it even matter if someone is an optimist? Let’s talk about macro – what if everyone was a pessimist?
Pessimism Hurts Productivity and Creativity
I just heard someone mention that sometimes he’ll be reading the news and get so deflated he can’t get anything done. You’ve probably had a similar experience – when you feel so weighed down with the troubles of the world that you lose the will to work.
You have to be a little optimistic to do your work. You have to believe that the work will amount to something. It’s hard to work when you think it doesn’t matter. We all need to be optimists to make it through the day. “Doomscrolling will never actually stop the doom itself. . . Being overwhelmed by tragedy serves no purpose.”
Pessimism Hurts Vulnerable People
Isn’t it better to just tell underprivileged people it’s not their fault if they don’t succeed?
I’ve seen a bunch of lauded tweets lately about privilege. I have no problem with people admitting what advantages they had to fill out the story. But I do have a problem when people are advocating that those “with privilege” are the only ones that can improve their lot in life. I hate tweets that suggest that those “without privilege” can’t do anything to improve their situation. That’s not just wrong, but immoral. Taking hope away from people is an evil act and there’s no justifying it.
There are countless successful people who could have been given that advice. Oprah. Jack Ma. Ben Carson. Muggsy Bogues. Most professional athletes. See also 17 billionaires who grew up dirt poor. And I’m not even saying you have to be a millionaire or billionaire – but just to improve your lot a little bit. How can you not believe that people can do that?
The other problem with believing this narrative of privilege is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The dirty secret of Asian American success is that everyone expects Asian Americans to succeed. Asian American C-students become A-students merely because the students are inundated with the belief they will succeed. (Based on this, I’m wary of all the reporting on minority underperformance because I think it’s creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure for other minorities). Believe in people and they can surprise you.
Pessimism Defeats Joy
I’ve seen some more doom and gloom tweets lately about how women can’t go out at night and are living in fear for their lives – in perfectly safe and affluent American cities. This fear has become popular, and I HATE IT. Yes, some women are attacked at night by strangers, but exponentially more are attacked at home. But the pessimists won’t be satisfied until every women is locked into her home sobbing and cowering in fear. This line of thinking keeps women from traveling, from exercising, from living independently. Stop robbing women of joy in the name of pessimism. Bad things happen but wise things happen when you prepare your entire life for the worst case scenario.
Pessimist Treat Everyone Poorly
Wayne Muller in Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives:
A “successful” life has become a violent enterprise. We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find enough time to be with them when they are hurt and afraid, and need our company; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth, because we cannot take the time to place our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us, to taste its blessing sand give thanks.
If everyone was a pessimist, the fear and anger and war from one person would be amplified to every single person. Humans are social animals and moods can be contagious. When you have a pessimistic view of the world, it brings you down and you spread that energy to others. The war on yourself gets translated to war on others and everyone gets a little or a lot worse.
What if Everyone Was an Optimist?
One person can make a huge difference in someone’s life. Think back and you can remember actions from another that still hurt you or still bring you joy. The snide comment from a popular boy. The discouragement from a so-called friend. The glowing praise from your teacher. A compliment that you really needed to hear.
Now let’s think about what happens if all your interactions are negative. Let’s think about criminals. Some people had great childhoods and wonderful parents, and they still turned out rotten. But a lot had such difficult childhoods that it makes us wonder, if we had grown up differently, would we have ended up like that? It makes us doubt our goodness. Because a lot of it has to do with our environment.
What I’m trying to say is not that people are good or bad. We are not inherently one or the other – we are impacted on a second by second basis by how we are treated. If people are bad now, if you treat them well, maybe they’ll turn good. If you treat people badly, even good people can turn bad.
How to Be an Optimist (Even in 2020)
Ok I hope I have convinced you that optimism is the way to be. Here are some things that have helped me maintain my optimism.
Take A Clear View of History
When I ask my friends if they are optimistic, they say no. They wax poetic on the great ideals this country was founded on, and seem to believe we’ve always met these ideals up until 4 years ago when a certain President was elected.
I will note that every person who has made this argument is white, grew up in middle class suburbia, and is less than 50 years old. And I get it – they probably had a super safe idyllic childhood. But once I mention the massacre of Native Americans, slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act, for starters, the tune changes.
Oh yeah, forgot about those.
Remember when I said above that the world is getting better? It is. Maybe it hasn’t for you, but let’s marvel at the huge strides that people have made in the past several decades and know that their success is your success too. It doesn’t help anyone to have millions starving in poverty.
Change Your Bias
I’m a first generation immigrant – my parents moved to the U.S. ten or so years before I was born. Immigrants tend to be more optimistic than those born in the country for a few generations. To me, it makes sense that immigrants are more optimistic.
One, it doesn’t make sense to move to a different country if you didn’t think it would be better. If things were all rosy in their home country, they wouldn’t have chosen to move to a country thousands of miles away, where they had few connections and didn’t speak the language. Even if it turns out worse in the beginning, you work your butt off to justify your choices.
Second, immigrants have an intimate view of the workings of a different country and its pitfalls. A lot of Americans have no idea what life is like outside their bubble. One study found, 40% of Americans have never left the country and 10% have never even left their state. Over half have not visited more than 10 states. And even for those Americans who have traveled abroad, life as a tourist in Paris is very different than real life anywhere.
Personally, I can’t help but be optimistic. As someone who is nonwhite, nonmale, and who grew up during the height of a crime wave in New York City, I can’t help but marvel at how much BETTER everything has gotten in the past few decades. I can’t help but be grateful at how much EASIER my life is than my parents.
Look Down for Gratitude
A lot of people look up at people who have better lives and then they feel discouraged and envious. I think a lot of immigrants look down at those who have worse lives, and feel extremely grateful. The secret to optimism is looking down.
I remember my mom watching this video on YouTube about a poor blind man and his son, and how much they sacrificed for each other. These people were destitute – like live in nowhere-China and can’t afford one-meal-a-day poor. And my mother has never been that poor. But she’s drawn to these kinds of videos to show her how grateful she must be. Really, we should all be this grateful every day.
Try to watch some documentaries where the people are more Slumdog Millionaire than Keeping up with the Kardashians. That’s a start.
Don’t Revel in Bad News
I remember one of my friends casually mentioning he never read the news because he was too busy (he’s a doctor). As a denizen of Washington, D.C., I found this absurd – how are you going to be informed? But over the past years, I’ve learned the wisdom of his approach.
The news doesn’t make you smarter – it just makes you sad. Look into how our culture is doomscrolling and how it affects our mental health.
Too often, we think reading the negative makes us smarter. But the news is not meant to inform; news orgs just want the clicks, not an educated populace. Read books if you want to learn.
Surround Yourself with the Positive
Say no to toxic people. Negative people will steal your energy.
Positive people are going to have more emotional capacity to help you when you’re down. Surrounding yourself with positive people will make you more happy, generous, successful, and (duh) will make you more positive.
Pretend You’re Optimistic
Fake it til you make it, right? Some anecdotes and studies have shown that smiling or acting happy can improve your mood. The plus side is that if you’re happy, you’ll attract more happy people, and/or make unhappier people happy – thus accomplishing the mission of surrounding yourself with happiness and positivity.
Don’t be the negative Nancy on Twitter. Retweet funny and hopeful things and improve the world around you. At least, don’t spread sadness and rage the way most people on Twitter do.
Conclusion – Why I’m an Optimist (Yes, Even in 2020)
It’s easy to fall into the trap of being pessimistic but being optimistic is actually a revolutionary act according to Alex Steffen:
Optimism, by contrast, especially optimism which is neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. Where no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice, and people in despair almost never change anything. Where no one believes a better solution is possible, those benefiting from the continuation of a problem are safe. Where no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But introduce intelligent reasons for believing that action is possible, that better solutions are available, and that a better future can be built, and you unleash the power of people to act out of their highest principles. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is: it creates the opportunity for us to love one another, and love is an explosive force in politics.
Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism.
Don’t let people try to trick you into pessimism, sorrow, despair. There are many problems present in the world today, and the only way we can challenge them is by being optimistic. Be an optimist in 2020 and work toward change.