The modern world seems to move faster every day, and the stakes become ever higher. With growing challenges ahead the future can look scary. In spite of the uncertainty, optimism is not only possible — it’s critical.
Listening to the news, it would be easy to think that doomsday is just around the corner. The old adage of the press still rings true: “If it bleeds, it leads”. Terrorist attacks, outbreaks of disease, violent crime, environmental disasters — bad news abounds.
The statistics show a different story, however. According to ourworldindata.org, disease and famine are relatively rare thanks to modern technology. The rate of extreme poverty is steadily decreasing. There are fewer people dying violent deaths now than at any point in human history. Education and communication technology is improving the lives of people worldwide.
On the whole, things are getting better for most people. But even though the trends are positive, people are still suffering, and long-term, large-scale challenges lie ahead.
Wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the elite, corrupting our democracy. Income inequality and relative poverty is worsening. Climate change is accelerating, impacting our food and water supply, and our very way of life. Violence, oppression, and exploitation are very real experiences for many.
Taken together, the scale of the problem seems daunting. As individuals, we don’t always feel we have the power to make a difference. Climate change won’t be solved by buying a hybrid car, nor by clicking “like” to cure cancer.
If we can’t directly help, what do we do with this knowledge?
The easiest option is to retreat into apathy, pessimism, and cynicism. We can just turn off the news, stick our heads in the sand, and live out our lives without lifting a finger. If the world is doomed, then why bother worrying about it?
Living with a mentality of “that’s just the way it is” leads us to accept injustice without question. Those that benefit from the world as it is now don’t want us to consider alternatives. They’re quick to label other forms of government and different economic models as “extreme” or even “dangerous”.
When we cannot consider alternatives, we cannot conceive of solutions. Down this road lies a slippery slope. Ignorance leads to selfishness. Selfishness risks making the problem worse.
The more challenging, but ultimately more rewarding option is optimism. This isn’t the same as wishful thinking or idle hope. This kind of optimism is an unbreakable sense of productive, rational faith: we plan to succeed, and then act with intent.
To do so, we first need to acknowledge that there is a problem. Thankfully, cracks in the status quo have begun to spread. Flaws in economic, legal, environmental, and social structures are becoming more obvious, and more people have started to speak up. The veil of “there is no alternative” is lifting.
Action happens at all scales — big and small. One person alone can’t bring world peace, but one person can bring peace to the world. Kindness begets kindness, and local action can have global consequences. Working together, humans are capable of incredible feats of ingenuity and resilience.
There are plenty of doomsday cults, so why not a cult of optimism? Instead of welcoming catastrophe or becoming delusional with denial, rational optimism arms us with clarity. With the power of positivity, we gain the confidence to acknowledge, address, and solve the problems we face together.
There are no easy answers, and no clear-cut battle of good vs. evil. Earth is a complicated system, and oversimplifying is part of the problem. Living out of optimism, every action can be part of the solution.