There’s always a way
In high school, my week revolved around the field hockey game on Saturday. Back then, we still played on regular grass. Hence, as the week progressed, a striking parallel arose between my mood and darkening skies. Too much rain would force the game to be cancelled, which routinely happened in the fall and winter. My grumbling started well in advance. If it were raining cats and dogs on a Friday afternoon, my dear mother would try to cheer me up by looking out the window and pointing at a random piece of sky. “Look,” she’d exclaim, “it’s already clearing up over there!”
That unfounded optimism always infuriated me. Nor is it the kind of optimism this magazine espouses. Optimism doesn’t mean denying reality. Or seeing sunshine when it’s raining. According to the dictionary, the everyday meaning of optimism is “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.” But the root of the word comes from Latin (optimum) and the more precise definition of optimism is “the doctrine that this world is the best of all possible worlds.
Optimism is a fundamental attitude. It’s not an opinion about reality; it’s a starting point for dealing with reality. At every moment, you can decide that you’re in the best situation to handle a given challenge. That is optimism. Optimism is searching for the yes in every situation and finding it, like in the e.e. cummings poem. David Sarnoff, founder of the television network NBC, aptly described that attitude: “If there’s no solution, then there’s no problem.”
There are always problems and challenges. Life is not simple. That it should be is a contemporary misconception fed by modern consumerism, which offers a quick solution for every inconvenience. An increasing stream of gurus have extrapolated from that material prosperity to claim that life can be, should be, an effortless affair.
All those messages seem to have made us less of a match for life. Our ancestors trekked across the steppes and savannas. They knew they were constantly in danger. They didn’t know life could be anything but challenging. Our reality consists of hospitals, insurance policies and benefit payments when things go wrong. The welfare state has strongly influenced our expectations, but it still doesn’t preclude bad things.
As I write this, I’ve been married for 27 years. The magazine I co-founded as Ode—now The Intelligent Optimist—has been around for 18 years. I’ve faced major challenges on both fronts, made painful mistakes, caused and experienced great pain and deep sorrow—but I’ve also experienced exceptional love and fulfillment. If I could do it all over again with the wisdom I now have, I certainly wouldn’t repeat my biggest mistakes. But I probably would stumble over new challenges and problems that I’ve missed so far because they weren’t in my lesson plan.
In 1978, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote The Road Less Traveled. The book begins like this: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
As soon as we stop resisting and truly accept our challenges, we can learn our lessons. I don’t yet see how that process can become “effortless”—the germination of every seed is fraught with struggle—but Peck is right: It no longer matters.
Every religion and philosophy of life teaches that the meaning of life lies in our response to the challenges we encounter. Our life lessons are the essence of our existence. That’s why the way we face those lessons is so important. Optimism turns out to be the most promising and fulfilling strategy, because the optimist accepts reality and then does something about it.
In studies on happiness, the French consistently rack up the lowest scores in the Western world. The material quality of their lives is comparable to that of people in neighboring countries. Measured over long time periods, French economic growth is consistent with European averages. Yet the French are more pessimistic. Far more than other Europeans, they expect their lives to get worse, and they are the top consumers of antidepressants. Why is that?
Writing in the Financial Times, Claudia Senik, a professor of economics at the Sorbonne in Paris, recently indicated a possible source of French pessimism: the educational system. The French system assumes all students will achieve the same top outcome. In reality, of course, they cannot all enjoy the finest educations at the best universities. As a result, the system undermines the self-confidence of French teen-agers, according to Senik. High-school students feel powerless.
Powerlessness is the root of pessimism. We are all born optimists. Who has ever met a pessimistic 4-year-old? A child who fell on the playground and, after having her tears dried and the scratch on her knee bandaged, decided never to run again? Those children don’t exist, because children get up, try again and keep laughing, even through their tears. Every child has the instinctive intelligence to keep trying. Young children don’t feel powerless.
A lot of optimism gets lost in high school and not only in France. Expectations increase. Exams and grades multiply. This creates a hierarchy within which the student is judged. No one used to count who had the bloodiest knees; suddenly, failing grades are tallied. The system strongly implies that people with higher grades lead better, more successful lives. That is an illusion of control. Those with poor scores have less control; they are more powerless, and they become more pessimistic.
Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander, who used to teach at the New England Conservatory, found a creative solution for this built-in “expectation of failure.” He decided to give all his students “A”s on the first day of class for the work they would perform in the coming year. There was one condition: On the first day of the school year, they had to write him a letter explaining why they would earn that “A” by the end of the year. Zander has since accumulated stacks of ompelling letters from his students. More important, he discovered that his students’ performance dramatically improved. The pre-assigned “A” instantly empowers the inspired students; their capacity to perform is triggered. Zander has been cultivating optimists at the conservatory.
The word “responsibility” can be neatly parsed: response-ability, the ability to provide a response. That ability forms the core of the optimistic lifestyle. Back to the stumbling preschooler: We don’t fail when we fall; we fail when we don’t get back up. Getting back up is response-ability. Zander’s father inspired his children with a Scandinavian proverb: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
The most striking example of this vision is the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Frankl wrote the book in the days after he was freed from a concentration camp in 1945. The original German title reveals more about the book’s message. Trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen means “yes to life despite everything.” When Frankl was sent to the concentration camp, he decided to put his psychiatric training to the ultimate test: How does the human mind work in extremely challenging, dehumanizing circumstances? He observed what kept some people going and what
pulled the rug out from under others and wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The optimist knows he is not in control of all that happens in his life but that he does determine his response to it. The pessimist feels like a victim; the optimist searches for solutions. And there is always a solution, or at least the beginning of one. After actor Michael J. Fox developed Parkinson’s disease, he related in a television interview how he finally came to terms with it: “The answer had nothing to do with protection and everything to do with perspective. The only choice not available to me was whether or not I had Parkinson’s. Everything else was up to me. I could concentrate on what I’d lost, or I could keep living and discover how the holes would fill themselves back up.”
The resilient optimist’s eternal quest makes him someone who endures. Optimism and persistence go hand in hand. You can’t find answers or solutions if you aren’t prepared to keep searching and digging. At the same time, you can’t find them if you don’t first accept the truth at the deepest level. That’s often a painful process. Optimism isn’t always fun and happy, and it has nothing to do with rose-colored glasses.
The focus of the optimist is on the potential change. She embraces yes and fights against no. The optimist makes the conscious choice to endure in times of hardship. It is illuminating that the Chinese use the same character for endurance as for patience: the patience required to wait for the moment when you can once again act effectively. That wise patience is also evident in theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
The optimist’s valiant attitude is undermined by modern culture. Ads constantly hawk victimization: Your life isn’t good because you’re missing something. And then there’s the news, a continual river of misery endlessly poured upon society, constantly telling us things going wrong that we can rarely fix. That combination of ads and news blares negativity into every ear and turns those who hear it into powerless observers. It feeds victimization, depression, pessimism and passivity. That’s the best reason to turn off the television and stop getting the paper. It’s hard to stay an optimist, to stay effective, if you’re constantly allowing negative influences to affect you. (On page 78, entrepreneur Trevor Blake offers a practical strategy for staying an effective optimist.)
Optimism and decisiveness also go hand in hand. Optimists act. That’s why entrepreneurs are optimists. “Optimism is an essential condition for doing something difficult,” says Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com. By acting, by doing something, you enter into relationship with the reality around you. That makes the reality your reality. And that gives meaning to your life. That kind of meaning is missing in many lives today.
Long ago, you were born on a farm and you were needed to help in the fields and in the stables. You knew what your life would look like and what you would do. That clarity provided something to hold onto. Today, everyone can be everything, but the flip side of everything is nothing. Many lives get stranded in that abyss. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
The initiative now called The Intelligent Optimist has journeyed through some dark valleys in its 18 years. During those crises, I often wondered if and how the road would continue. My best friends begged me to give up, because they saw how much the struggle was costing my loved ones and me. They were partially right. The danger of endurance driven by optimism is that it can turn into obstinacy—and I’m guilty of that, too.
On the other hand, I’ve had frequent talks with the same friends about their lives, and often those conversations reveal how desperately they are searching for a clear purpose in life, something that makes them jump out of bed full of energy and drive whenever the moment demands it. It isn’t easy to find your unique contribution in the vast haystack of the universe. It has been my luck and privilege to know what personal contribution I can and may make to this world. But no end justifies all means, and therein lies a danger and a warning for every committed optimist. I’ve experienced that one intimately.
Still, some goal is ultimately better than no goal. Advertisements sell the good life after 65 when you can live off your savings—if properly invested with the advertising company, of course. But what is often overlooked is that neither “getting paid to sit at home” nor going on frequent vacations provides you with a fulfilling sense of purpose. You’re better off doing something than having “free time.”
In 2006, San Francisco commemorated the major earthquake of 1906. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about a 106-year-old man who had lived through the earthquake as a boy. He described that experience, but he also talked about his current life. Every day, he got up at six in the morning to go to work, stocking the shelves at the grocery store a few blocks from his house. He still enjoyed his job. He belonged somewhere. He had a purpose.
That’s why optimists are healthier and happier—a result that’s been proven by myriad studies. People with an optimistic attitude toward life get sick less often. When they are sick, they heal faster. They feel more connected to their lives, and that makes them happier. Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology movement, came to the same conclusion in several studies. Optimists feel they have answers to the circumstances in which they find themselves. That simple realization strengthens their immune systems. Pessimists, on the other hand, undermine their immune systems with feelings of despair and powerlessness.
The good news is that Seligman has shown that you can learn to be an optimist. In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman writes that he can turn someone who’s had 30 years of practice thinking pessimistically into an optimist. His lesson plan is a combination of creative brainstorming techniques and exercises in assertiveness, relaxation and decision-making—all in the context of “learning to cope with life.” The program has been used for years with freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania, where Seligman teaches psychology, and the results are clear: better health, fewer visits to the doctor, better grades, fewer suicides, better eating habits, more exercise, better self-care and so on.
Finally, optimists naturally embrace two elements more readily than pessimists. Optimists are grateful, and they have a sense of humor. They take themselves less seriously. “Laughter is the currency of hope,” Frankl said. Norman Cousins overcame a painful disease by watching Marx Brothers films. “Laughter interrupts the panic cycle of an illness,” he wrote. There is a correlation between laughter and the levels of certain hormones in the body that regulate our perception of pain. Who hasn’t experienced laughter as a welcome balm in the middle of grief and misery? It’s as if the painful reality fades for a time, and space opens up for a new and broader perspective.
There will always be problems. That won’t ever change. What you can change is the way you approach those problems: with gratitude for the chance to learn a new lesson, gratitude for the opportunity to find a path that may provide new fulfillment and thanks for everything that is working and for everything that makes your life good. That gratitude is the converse of the pessimist’s disappointment.
The Brazilians have a saying that might explain why they always place near the top in the list of most optimistic countries. Da um jeitinho: There’s always a way. It’s true. And because that way exists, my mother was partly right after all: Dark skies are always clearing up. That’s why optimism offers us the best way to live.
Illustrations: Marc Kolle/marckolle.com