Then and Now: Staying Upbeat

Tami calls me a “Pollyanna” – almost always upbeat and optimistic about the present and future. Is that realistic? No… and yes. Is it beneficial? Absolutely YES!

 Let’s start with a fact: some people are born with a natural disposition to be pessimistic, whereas others come into this world with an optimistic temperament. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything to change or moderate our general perspective on life; personal change is possible, and even advisable. But such change is not necessarily easy, because it strikes at the very core of our personality. So, if what follows is persuasive but goes against your “grain”, with some mental effort you can certainly “modify” yourself.

What is not realistic about being constantly upbeat? Simply put, not everything “works out for the better”. As the colloquial saying goes: “shit happens”. Even if you believe in historical “progress” (more on that in a moment), that is not a constant, linear, upward slope. The lsope of history acts more like a roller coaster, but despite the dips it’s one that generally moves higher. Sort of “two steps forward, one step backward.”

On the other hand, general optimism is definitely realistic – if one takes the “longer view”. I have always felt – and mention to my friends when they talk about the “good old days” – that if I had one power to turn everyone in today’s world into an optimist, it would be this: a time machine to return them a few centuries back for a mere 24 hours. Let them freely wander about. They would probably not even last the full day.

For instance, back then the public stench was overwhelming, with garbage simply thrown out the window into the street – which is why to this day in older parts of European cities one can still see the “indentation” running down the stone street so that the effluents would be washed away during the rains. And if you tried to take refuge in people’s home, well their personal body odor would overwhelm us moderns as well: people showered once a month or at best once a week. Indeed, that’s the origin of the term “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater”. The entire family would bathe in the bathtub in sequential order: dad, mom, older siblings and down the line, so that by the time the baby’s turn came the bathwater was dark and murky from everyone’s dirt and so submerged that you couldn’t see “junior” and might empty the bath (out the window), baby and all!

Actually, the situation was far worse: imagine living at a time when one in three of your children (and you had many!) died before reaching the age of 5; when a toothache meant physical extraction with pliers (and no anesthesia) – don’t even think about other, more invasive operations; and when you were lucky to live past age 36 (the average lifespan in Europe in the late 18th century – Mozart’s exact age when he died). One can go on and on about nutrition (severely lacking), poverty (the lot of the vast majority) – and that’s if you were lucky enough not to be a slave, or slaving away in indentured servitude.

In short, our life today is immeasurably better than anything that came before. So why shouldn’t we be optimistic about our personal as well as our social/national/global future?

But you might ask, just because a person becomes (more) optimistic, that makes their life better? The surprising answer is a definite “yes”. First, although this sounds banal, it is also true: optimistic people enjoy life more, so that there is a qualitative benefit. Even more germane is the “surprising” (?) fact that taking everything else into account, optimistic people live a few years longer than pessimistic people!

None of this is to say that we should go through life apathetically because “everything will work out for the better”. They won’t (as I already noted above) – unless we do something about it proactively. The human race in general, and each of us specifically, have powers of creative problem-solving that we are hardly aware of, until we start moving that “muscle”. Here’s just one example among myriads.

A huge, best-selling book in the late 1960s was Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb, a modern updating of Thomas Malthus’ infamous prediction that humanity will forever suffer from starvation and over-population warfare. What happened since then? On the one hand, the world developed agricultural technology (e.g., “Golden Rice”: a genetically modified type of rice with fortified beta-carotene – the basis of vitamin A – that has saved tens of millions of children from blindness). On the other hand, fertility rates have plummeted almost everywhere in the world, as parents decided to have fewer children in order to provide more to those that they do have.

So, when I hear the fear-mongers regarding, for example, climate change, I react in two ways: first, I’m happy that they’re warning us; second, precisely because of those warnings, I’m very optimistic that humanity will find the solutions to this real problem – just as they did with “overpopulation”. As the title of this post suggests: what happened “then” is not what will happen “now” or in the future. Optimism coupled with creative adaptation almost always brings about a positive outcome.

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