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Optimism lives

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Mark Bonica
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Flickr

A few days after Hurricane Ian ripped across Florida, we received an attractive color brochure inviting us to visit a retirement community in that state with a view to spending our declining years there. The establishment was in a waterside location, in the heart of hurricane territory. The illustrations seemed to show that it was built not more than two or three feet above sea level, and that it was filled with serene, smiling retirees, every one of them obviously a dedicated optimist. The brochure promised seniors a secure future, although it did not specify how long that future might be.

This badly timed piece of publicity was ironic and sad of course, coming after the recent deadly disaster. Our increasingly destructive climate is no joke, but it set me thinking about the power of optimism.

Despite everything we read and hear, optimism is far from dead. All political and religious promises depend on it, as does all of advertising.

There’s no shortage of optimists who seem ready and even eager to rebuild in the same places after floods or forest fires, to buy cryptocurrencies, or to bet on horses. We are an optimistic species. We couldn’t survive without our ability to hope for improbable or impossible things, but it’s not always easy.

Those with a less hopeful nature believe that optimism is like happiness — a mistake about the nature of reality, a failure to watch the evening news. Recent surveys show Americans divided almost equally between those who are optimistic about the future and those who are pessimistic. But it’s not quite as simple as that. It’s all a matter of focus — what you can decide to be optimistic about. Optimism is a deliberate choice, almost a discipline, not a calculation of probabilities based on facts. If you calculate probabilities, you will be a pessimist all your life.

Short-term optimism works best. That genial 18th century letter writer Rev. Sidney Smith advised that the secret of happiness was to: “Take a short view of life, no further than dinner or tea.” This is a piece of simple wisdom we can all appreciate. Live in the moment. Dedicated pessimists may cry that the party’s over. But it’s not over yet. The sun may come out tomorrow and the afternoon mail delivery may contain a huge tax refund. There is always something to hope for.

It is possible to overdo it even to the point of foolishness. The most famous cockeyed optimist in literature was Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s novel Candide, who professed to believe that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The disasters that happened to him throughout the novel did nothing to change his mind, he just ignored them. He was exactly the kind of person who would retire to a waterside condo in Florida without a second thought.

In the library I found a book about how to be an optimist which gave much the same advice as the Rev. Smith — think about small things, and only in the short term. It began with an optimism test of 50 questions, which I answered as honestly as I could, and scored more or less in the middle of the scale. This confirmed my belief that I am what I term a rational optimist: I hope for the best — in the immediate future — while expecting the worst (eventually). This works out well and I recommend it. You get to feel good before you get to feel bad, and it all balances out. A true optimist is one who believes that the future will be indefinitely postponed.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.