Seeing Double: On Optimism

If you read this column regularly, you’ll know that I tend to write about what I see going wrong in the world. In the past few weeks, I’ve written about the harms of our immigration laws, felony disenfranchisement and the slow death of local news. All of these topics impact our lives and the lives of people around us in profoundly negative ways.

At times, it can be demoralizing and difficult to spend time reading the stories of people who have been hurt by our laws and policies. The same is true when reading the news: fires in California and the Amazon rainforest, corruption in the United States’ executive branch and starvation in Yemen don’t make me leap for joy either. Certain stories I have to ignore in order to cope. At the end of August, when news reports of the Amazon fires were everywhere, I had to tune out because I couldn’t bear to think about the biggest rainforest in the world burning to ashes. In doing so, I removed myself from any sort of solution, activism or engagement surrounding the fires. At the same time, disengaging for a moment actually kept me going. Ignoring what’s going on lets us continue to function but at the cost of our agency and power to make change. I’m not being melodramatic when I say I couldn’t bear the news. Headlines like Washington Post’s “Amid flooding and rising sea levels, residents of one barrier island wonder if it’s time to retreat” and the Guardian’s “Global investment in cutting greenhouse gases fell by 11 percent in 2018” don’t just bum me out. They make me wonder if our generation will have a recognizable future.

In other words, I have literal existential dread.

I’ve always been an optimist, but now I’ve come to believe that optimism is the only way to overcome this dread. To be optimistic is to have hope for the future, to believe that things will eventually turn out okay. Optimism is the opposite of hopelessness and despair.

My optimism is what drives me to knock on doors in unfamiliar suburbs, hoping that a friendly face will answer and talk to me about climate change. It’s what pushes me to cold-call voters in faraway places, brushing off the people who treat me like last week’s trash and trying to convince those who will listen that their votes really do matter. And it’s what animates the research and passion behind every one of my articles. Every other week, I use this space to identify and call out real pain and suffering that aren’t receiving enough attention. But merely identifying a problem isn’t helpful without a dose of hope.

People sometimes criticize optimists, saying that we’re not in tune with reality and that optimism is naïve. When it comes to optimists’ ability to predict the future, the critics aren’t wrong. Tali Sharot, a researcher at University College London, wrote in 2011 that “most of us predict deriving greater pleasure from a vacation than we subsequently do, and we anticipate encountering more positive events in an upcoming month (such as receiving a gift or enjoying a movie) than we end up experiencing.”

Optimism is a bias that prevents us from accurately foreseeing what’s going to happen. Sharot’s review found that optimism is caused by the brain’s failure to adequately update our predictions based on bad news.

But those criticisms miss the point. Of course optimists overestimate the frequency of good events — that’s what makes optimism so potent! The value of optimism isn’t that it’s a measured prediction of the future. Instead, optimism is valuable as a source of power in the present.

It keeps us going each and every day, despite all adversity. It makes us believe that we can impact the world. Optimism gives us an imagined future, disproportionately good but worth fighting for. And if we don’t make it all the way towards that fantasy, we’ve at least made progress. The alternative is unacceptable: when we believe in the impotence of action, we resign ourselves to the status quo forever.

The world is broken in so many ways, and the media doesn’t stop reminding us. Whenever I think about how scared the news can make me feel, I think of my middle school art teacher, Mr. Palm. On everyone’s birthday, he would sing a parody song in a low monotone: “Happy birthday. Happy birthday. People dying everywhere, misery is in the air, happy birthday.”

The song was a joke, but it has a note of truth. And yet, despite the chords of misery and strife in the world, optimists continue to live on. We celebrate birthdays, mourn deaths and love our neighbors and communities. We fight for what’s right and pick ourselves back up after falling hard. And we have misplaced hope against all the evidence — hope that I will never let go of.