Why It's Important to be an Optimist

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.  (James Branch Cabell)

I am currently reading What Are You Optimistic About?, a collection of short essays by thought leaders in many different disciplines on the eponymous subject.  I’m also reading True Enough, a compelling argument by Farhad Manjoo for how despite — nay, because of — the fire hose of information that permeates modern society and is available for the asking, the schism between what’s true and what we believe is widening; a polemic on polemics if you will.  Taken together, these two books suggest to me that there is a case, not for being optimistic per se, but for why you should consciously, actively try hard to become an optimist if you aren’t already.

To understand why, you have to understand the central argument of True Enough, which is summed up nicely by the author himself:

…in a world of unprecedented media choice… we begin to select our reality according to our biases, and we interpret evidence (such as photos and videos) and solicit expertise in a way that pleases us.

In other words, our cognitive apparatus (so useful on the savanna) is woefully unprepared to navigate the complexity of our current world.  With enough data points to draw from, we consciously and unconsciously create a model of reality that suits our tastes, and we mistake that model for reality itself.  We cherry pick evidence that agrees with our preconceptions and ignore evidence in discord.  What is most chilling about the book is that it shows how our very perception is biased by our beliefs; we could be watching the same football game on TV and have an entirely different view of the facts of what happened.  Indeed, we do, all the time, about everything.

To Manjoo’s point, if you are reading this, it’s a pretty good guess that you would agree with this statement: the arrow of time points towards greater understanding and the closing of the gap between truth and belief as history marches on.  But ironically, Manjoo shows why (at least in the short run) there is a gap between your belief and the reality.  Hardly a case for optimism.

Yet I argue that because of the veracity of Manjoo’s argument, it is imperative that we take an optimistic stance in life.  Simply put, we live in a world where both optimists and pessimists have more than enough evidence to “prove” that they are right.  Right about specific events and right about their worldview in general.  And because we live in a world of self-fulfilling prophecy, a world where future reality is shaped ever more by current mindset, it is important to our survival that we imagine the world is as benevolent and full of possibility as we’d like it to be.

  • I wish someone would post about the dangers of optimism.

  • Tiltmom

    I recently gave JK a copy of Martin Seligman’s _Learned Optimism_. Maybe I can coax him into posting a review.