Do we over-admire optimism?

Posted May 26, 2012 4:26 pm  


Jane Brody had a recent column discussing how her optimistic attitude has enriched her life. She enumerated the benefits of optimism; it may even extend life, since optimists tend to take better care of themselves.  Essentially, the article explains how optimism equates with being motivated and persistent. If you expect a good result and don’t get it, but you are a positive thinker, you will be more likely not to give up but to try again and again. Brody isn’t promoting a Pollyanna line of thought—that just thinking positively will make good things happen—but she does write this:

“Unlike Voltaire’s Candide, I’ve yet to be stripped of my optimism, though there are clearly forces in this country and the world that could subdue even the most ardent optimist.

I am a realist, after all, and I do fret over things I may be able to do little or nothing about directly: economic injustice; wars and the repeated failure to learn from history; our gun-crazy society; the overreliance on tests to spur academic achievement; and attempts to strip women of their reproductive rights.

But I’ve found that life is a lot more pleasant when one looks at the bright side, seeing the glass half full and assuming that reason will eventually prevail.”

It isn’t hard to see this argument—while persuasive—as undermining political activity. If you believe that climate change may be dooming life on earth, Brody begins to sound quite a bit like Candide. Of course, life is more pleasant if we don’t think about great problems that are resistant to change, but how can we hope to change them, if we just assume “that reason will eventually prevail”? In the face of the peril of climate change, this attitude seems particularly fool-hearty. Maybe optimism needs to be reconsidered.


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