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Optimism of the Will

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August 24, 2011 by Steven Worden

Let’s see: we are stuck in three wars, crushed by debt, faced with high unemployment and a deranged stock market, and all the while we sizzle like a chunk of back fat in a hot iron skillet. So, what do we do? Despair? Brood? Sink into depression? Not hardly.

Oliver Bennett is Professor at the University of Warwick and founder of the Center for Cultural Policy Studies. In a recent article, he recommends that in times like these we should each nurture within ourselves at least a “small zone” of optimism. Psychologists Taylor and Brown, argue that the “harbouring” of what cynics may dismiss as “positive illusions” leads to better physical and psychological health. Improved family and social relationships and the greater likelihood of achieving one’s goals also can result.

Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, discovered the critical role of optimism in achievement with his study of 5,000 new Metropolitan Life Insurance salesmen. Even though carefully screened, half of the salesmen quit within a year and 80 percent resigned within four years. Interestingly, a measure of optimism predicted not only who would stay on the job but who would also record the highest number of sales.

But, can we nurture optimism? Some scientists do believe that there may be a large genetic component to optimism. As Lionel Tiger noted, “Being a hunting species, humans must have hope. It is as necessary as air.” (Especially for salespeople?) Other researchers, even if they accept the biological roots of optimism, argue that it still may be strengthened and nurtured in childhood. Conversely, it may also be diminished or destroyed. The family, in fact, may play the key role in promoting and maintaining optimism. According to Seligman, a child’s level of optimism may be directly related to the parents’ (particularly the mother’s) general level of optimism.

Unfortunately, as Bennett argues, there has been “a breakdown in the capacity of the family to provide a nurturing environment.” He traces this to rising divorce rates and higher levels of depression among the parents, themselves. As a result, children now may be more likely to develop negative views toward themselves and their futures, which can lead to later depression, anxiety, and lack of achievement.

So to what else can we look? Obviously, there are other resources for creating and sustaining optimism. As a society, we employ drugs and alcohol precisely for their ability to evoke an apparently pleasant future. A virtual industry of self-help books, counselors, therapists, coaches, analysts, and clinics has sprung up to pick up the slack left by the declining/depressed family. Bennett does pointedly note, however, that a university may not be one of the better places to raise one’s level of optimism. Many disciplines appear fascinated with what Raymond Tallis identified as “narratives of decline.“ In some areas of study, optimism may be even ridiculed for its naiveté and shallowness. Pessimism has become the mark of moral and intellectual seriousness, according to Tallis. The fashionable media with their themes of deviance, violence, and post-apocalyptic visions probably don’t add much, either.

Instead, Bennett says that in the search for support in the cultivating the “optimism of everyday life” we should look to religion. Religion, he points out, has always been in the business of promoting optimism. Much of the message of religion involves the expectation that good things rather than bad, will generally happen. Further, when bad things do happen, as they will, adherents may have a greater capacity to experience satisfactory lives and subjective well-being even in the midst of such adverse circumstances. For example, on a visit to Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, I listened to an old Trappist monk speaking to an audience of visitors. He solemnly ticked off an impressively long list of all the things that were going wrong with the world. He then paused, and matter-of-factly observed, “You know all these things would be pretty depressing, if it weren’t for the fact that we live forever.”

In sum, Bennett and others would argue that in these times, we ought to ignore the siren call of what Antonio Gramsci called the “pessimism of the intellect.” We instead should embrace the “optimism of the will” and determinedly cultivate in ourselves and our children, through our supportive institutions, a positive view of our life experiences and prospects.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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