An optimist thinks that the world can be a better place. One of the corollaries of this simple understanding is that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today. I am not so sure if we are better today than yesterday, but I would like to be better tomorrow than today. An optimist thinks that things can only get better. Talking about the future is a depressing discussion for a pessimist. One often wonders, whether there are more optimists or pessimists in the world. One wants to know, among the two, which approach is better to lead a good life. It is not an easy question, as both optimism and pessimism have their advantages and disadvantages.
Optimism makes people more hopeful about life. Optimism prepares us to deal with unpredictability. It is said that a pessimistic mindset also performs the same function. A pessimist thinks about the worst outcomes, and one of the consequences of it is that it prepares him to face the situation, howsoever bad it is. By thinking about what might go wrong, pessimism protects us from going wrong when things do go wrong. Optimists think about growth. The minds of pessimists, on the other hand, are more preoccupied with security and safety. Research says that pessimists perform better when they think in negative ways. Optimists are more engaged with their task when they think positively. Optimists dream big. They respond better to positive feedback. On the other hand, pessimistic tendencies help people reduce their natural anxiety, and this results in better performance. Pessimists, compared to optimists, seem to respond better to negative feedback. Optimism and pessimism are not just accidents. These are two different, but effective, strategies for coping with a complex and unpredictable world. What we need is optimum optimism.
The optimism-pessimism journey, like a sine curve, goes through a well laid-out route. The first mid-station of this journey is excitement. Optimism gives us hope, and that generates excitement. The natural consequence of excitement is a thrill. Thrill gives birth to euphoria. Euphoria causes anxiety. Anxiety develops a tendency of denial, which, in turn, arouses fear. Out of fear grows desperation and panic. Once panicky, one develops the tendency to surrender. As a result, there is despondency and depression. At this mid-station, hope steps in to get over depression. Once we overcome depression, there is a relief. Relief clears our path to regain optimism. Optimism grows out of hope, euphoria kills it, and the journey continues. An optimist believes in achieving the best possible outcome. He believes in pleasant events more than unpleasant ones. He often discounts uncertainties. Often we are overly optimistic. Daniel Kahneman says that excessive optimism is one of our most significant biases. Kahneman tells us that the blessings of
optimism is offered to only those individuals who are mildly biased.
Psychological research has shown that a majority of people believe
themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and more talented than average, and they commonly overestimate their future success. A pessimist, on the other hand, thinks if anything bad is happening, it is because of him, and if anything good is happening, it is because of others. A pessimist is not afraid to discredit himself but is afraid to apportion himself the due credit. The midpoint between optimism and pessimism is realism. A realist is careful enough to reject the impractical and impossible outcomes. There is always room for uncertainty in a realist’s agenda. A too optimist doesn’t see the troubles that lie ahead and often get deceived by the rosiness of the future. If one promises pie in the sky to a stranger and doesn’t give him, one can somehow get over the situation. But before promising a pie to his grandchild, one should make sure that he will be able to deliver the pie. One can get away from a stranger, but not from his grandchild, by showing an unrealistic ray
of hope. An optimum optimist has a realistic perception of himself and his surroundings. He knows that simply becoming too self-critical doesn’t
help. He knows when to focus and on what. Before theorising, he
gathers the data. An optimum optimist knows the way to prepare a mixture of concrete and abstract. An optimist thinks that a good student can be a good teacher. An optimum optimist thinks that a not-so-good student can also be a good teacher; for an optimum optimist, academic credentials are not the sole criterion to become a good teacher. An optimum optimist is an adaptationist. He doesn’t believe in pure extrapolations. He knows that the logical extensions under certain circumstances fail. Being an adaptationist, he knows how to manage situations when extrapolations fail. He knows that too much optimism blurs vision.
Bhagavad Geeta teaches us to act without any hope. Jean-Paul Sartre also said to act without hope. What they meant was to work without making any assumption that what we are working for will be achieved. Sartre’s hope is hope without any illusions; one need not hope to undertake one’s work. Can one act when there is no hope? One way to look at it is that where there is no hope there is no fear, and when there is no fear, there is peace and tranquillity. Our shattered hopes often help us to see life more clearly.
We all want to live in a world, in the words of Armory Lovins, “where the war against the earth is over; where we’ve stopped treating soil like dirt, forests are expanding, farms emulate natural ecosystems, rivers run clean, oceans are starting to recover, fish and wildlife are returning, and a stabilising, radically resource-efficient human population needs ever less of the world’s land and metabolism, leaving more for all the relatives who give us life.” But it is difficult to conceive of such a world.
To hypothesise such a world, mere optimism is not enough. What we need is ‘applied hope’. Lovins says applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. Applied hope is not about some vague far-off future, but an image that has a good chance of becoming reality. It is expressed and created moment by moment through our choices.
The most solid foundation that can be laid for a better future is to improve it — tangibly, durably, reproducibly, and scalably. The real practitioners of applied hope are not mere theorists. “Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen” is how Michael Jordan would describe applied hope. The task before the applied hopefuls is thus quite challenging. “It requires you to combine sizzle in your brain, fire in your belly, perseverance rooted like a redwood, and soul as light as a butterfly.” And we should also keep in mind what Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”
An optimum optimist understands the difference between hope and hype.
Hope reaffirms optimism. The unrealistic expansion of hope results in the hype. In some situations, particularly where nothing works, hope works.
An optimum optimist knows that hope works like a drug, and that drug overdose is generally dangerous. An optimum optimist promises only what he can deliver. He possesses a good nose for talent and also has a low tolerance of nonsense. An optimum optimist cares for the dreams of ordinary people. At the moment of triumph, an optimum optimist remembers that in the victory of the people lies the secret of his success. An optimum optimist is careful about the balance between self-need and concern for others. The genome of an optimum optimist contains the genes of tolerance. An optimum optimist carries a raincoat even on a sunny day.
Utopian visionaries see in the future world a state of balance and peace, and where all life is valued and sustained. Since the world has achieved its full potential, they see no reason for one to be aggressive. They maintain that man has no enmity or competition with nature. In the future world, they find it no difficult to expect a world of equal opportunity and equitable distribution of goods and services. They see in the future world abolition of cultural, racial and gender-based prejudices. They see that humanity has solved all its problems with the help of sensibly developed and rightly used technologies.
Dystopian visionaries, on the other hand, imagine a future world where life
and nature are recklessly exploited and eventually destroyed. They predict the catastrophic destruction of our natural environment. They imagine the loss of complete freedom of the mind, due to technological interventions. They believe future generations will depend more upon artificial intelligence than their native intelligence. They believe technology will make them slaves of technology. Overly disastrous future projection is not a great idea as excessive optimism is. The utopian future is projected by idealist visionaries. Dystopian future, on the other hand, is projected by those who feel oppressed by their environment and are afraid to fight extreme odds. The point is to avoid both the utopian and dystopian extremes and take a conciliatory middle path. If
optimism is mixed with some amount of pessimism, it works better. If in
certainty, a certain amount of uncertainty is mixed, it generally leads to better results. An adaptationist can extend or contract oneself as per the demands of the situation. An adaptationist knows how to manage situations when extrapolations fail. And man is the best adaptationist. William Faulkner in his Nobel speech said that “Man will not merely endure. He will prevail.”