Using Personal Optimism to Transcend Collective Pessimism

by Vins
Published: Updated:

We Americans are celebrated as one of the most optimistic people in the world, yet the majority of us now feel pessimistic about our nation’s future and our ability to address big problems like climate change. And yet when it comes to our own personal future—we can be stubbornly optimistic. How can we hold both perspectives at the same time: optimism for me, pessimism about we?

Our collective pessimism is so entrenched, that even when things improve we remain overwhelmingly cynical. There are many reasons to be concerned about the state of the world today. In the face of serious and unprecedented global problems, we have a conflicted government that few of us trust to solve these problems, and the media remind us, 24/7, of what’s going wrong.

It’s easier to be hopeful about our individual vs. our collective future because we have more control over it. This “optimism bias” also provides some clear-cut benefits: less stress and anxiety, better physical and mental health, and stronger motivation to act and be productive.

On the other hand… excessive personal optimism can seduce us into blindly imagining that our personal good fortune will be unaffected by collective problems – which just isn’t so.

So what can optimists do about the sorry state of the world? Optimists can take some of that “can-do” mentality and find creative ways to engage in the collective issues of our time – recognizing that our own personal lives and our collective fate are inextricably linked.

Source:  Lisa Bennet, “Why are we More Optimistic About Ourselves Than About Our Society?” Yes! Magazine, April 30, 2014, http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/why-are-we-more-optimistic-about-ourselves-than-about-society.

Student Researcher: Adaeze Iroka (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)