War. Climate. Crime. Pandemic. Poverty. Politics. Inflation. That’s just a starting list of the many things that seem to be going wrong—and getting worse. There’s a lot to be gloomy about.
Even pop music is getting gloomier. Take “Midnights,” Taylor Swift’s new collection of songs about what keeps her up at night. The album is smashing records for sales and streaming, including being the first to capture all ten of the Billboard Top 10 slots at the same time. It is also, by David Brooks’ assessment, part of a 40-year trend towards more anxiety, restlessness, exhaustion, and anger in popular music. The usage of the word “love” in popular songs has declined by roughly 50%, for example, while negative emotion words, like “hate,” have risen sharply.
Brooks argues that increasing negativity in music reflects growing pessimism in real life. As evidence, he points to Gallop survey results showing a “global rise of unhappiness.” Between 1990 and 2018, for example, the share of Americans who put themselves in the lowest happiness category in Gallop’s annual survey increased by more than 50 percent. Gallup also found that, globally, only 20 percent of people are thriving at work, while 62 percent are indifferent, and 18 percent are miserable. Almost two billion people are so unhappy where they live that they would not recommend their community to a friend. What’s more, an analysis of 23 million headlines over the last 20 years showed that the news keeps getting worse, with significantly more reports of anger, fear, disgust, and sadness.
How should we respond to this gloomy data? Here are five reasons to meet the gloom—and beat it—with optimism, both personally and organizationally.
1. The world is getting better in many significant ways. Contrary to the negative news and mood, global poverty is way down. Life expectancy has doubled in the past 100 years. Educational levels are way up, even in developing countries. Crime is down. So are deaths from wars and terrorism, even though they worry us so much. These positive trends are highlighted in a plethora of smart books, including The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker; Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler; and Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Granted, the gains from these positive trends are spread far too inequitably. But they are still significant, and they justify optimism.
2. Optimists are healthier. A wide range of research supports that optimists fare better than pessimists in both physical and mental health. For example, a meta-analysis of 15 studies including 229,391 individuals found that optimists had a 35% lower chance of getting heart disease and a 14% lower chance of premature death. Optimists have better results after surgery. They develop healthier behaviors. They have better coping skills to deal with setbacks and other stressful events. They live longer and experience healthier aging.
3. Optimism can make you more successful. As Helen Keller noted, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.” Success at work, both personally and organizationally, comes down to perceiving a need and solving it better than the competition. Research shows that an optimistic approach contributes mightily to doing this, as Utpal Dholakia crisply summarizes: optimism supports creative thinking and generation of new ideas; it produces a tendency to act; it supports persistence; and, it facilitates learning and bouncing back from failure. Other research shows that optimism is a critical success factor for leadership, and for being perceived by peers and direct reports as being innovative.
4. Your children’s future will be better because of it. Optimism is especially powerful over the long term, when we can reap the cumulative benefits of being open to and working towards better solutions to difficult, long-term challenges. As the old proverb goes:
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Yet, while it’s easy to enjoy 20-year-old trees, it takes a special kind of long-term perspective to expend the cost and effort of planting trees to enjoy 20 years from now—when you might not even be around to enjoy them. Behavioral economists tell us that it is very difficult for people to make this kind of trade off. But parents do it all the time. In so many ways, parents work harder today than they otherwise need in order to create better tomorrows for their children. Next time you wonder whether it is worth doing something that has a mostly long-term payback, try to picture your children reaping those benefits rather than yourself.
5. There are ever more powerful tools available to address the most challenging problems. Wishful thinking isn’t enough. But, thanks to science, technology, and human ingenuity, we have increasingly powerful tools to translate our hopefulness regarding our most serious societal challenges into solutions. Take genomic sequencing, which was a critical tool for developing amazing diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics to fight Covid-19. Genomic sequencing had gotten a million times faster and a million times cheaper in the 20 years prior to the emergence of the virus. As a result, the pandemic, while devastating, was much better addressed than we could have imagined if it had occurred just a few years earlier.
That pace of advance will continue. As Paul Carroll, Tim Andrews and I explore in “A Brief History of a Perfect Future,” inexorable “Laws of Zero” are driving exponential advances in capability and corresponding cost reductions in seven key technological drivers: computing, communications, information, genomics, energy, water, and transportation. Applying the Laws of Zero to society’s biggest problems provides tremendous opportunities for innovators to prosper by building a better tomorrow.
So, don’t just be an optimist in attitude. Be one in action. Real optimism isn’t about just hoping or predicting that better futures will somehow happen, real optimists make better futures happen. As Alan Kay says, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”