Positive thinking and being cheerful are often regarded as unalloyed virtues and symbols of spiritual strength, but where do you usually score on the optimism/pessimism scale? When facing a new situation, do you tend to be hopeful or suspicious? If it is the latter, do you feel somewhat uncomfortable about it, and keep your thoughts to yourself?
If so, you can now take heart. Studies repeatedly show that pessimists are more clear- sighted and rational than optimists. Because they make decisions on the basis of what is likely to happen, rather than on what they hope will happen, they make good judgements. Optimists, on the other hand, are more inclined to regard attractive possibilities as probabilities, and to postpone consideration of the awkward, practical details until later. They may be cheerful, but they more frequently get it wrong.
Both extreme optimists and extreme pessimists can be very irritating people. There is no point in arguing with true blue pessimists: they win hands down. They love facts, the harder and bonier the better. As one great pessimist, the Buddha, said: “Anyone who loves is bound to suffer. Nothing can give you lasting happiness. Everything ends in loss, decay and death.” How could you possibly argue with that?
There is also no point in arguing with true blue optimists. They are not at all reasonable. They operate from a higher, more holistic and spiritual perception of truth. They know in their heart and soul what is right, and the facts are irrelevant.
Aristotle argued that virtues need to be moderate to be healthy. They become toxic when taken to excess. It is obvious that pessimism can lead to cynicism and despair, but we rarely see the dangers of unbalanced hope. How could anything so encouraging be bad?
Optimistic leaders can mobilise the passion of nations. Think of Hitler. In World War II, the Germans and the Japanese fought with deep conviction for their vision of a new, purified, world civilisation. They were mobilised by the power of a dream. The Allies had no such inspiring vision to fight for. In fact, they were fighting ‘against’ rather than ‘for’. After the Great Depression of 1929, democracy had completely lost its shine.
Because soldiers thrive on good morale and a cause they believe in, the average Axis soldier was probably a better fighting machine than the average Allied soldier. It certainly looks that way. However, no amount of fighting spirit, hope or vision was going to win the war for Japan or Germany. They were buried under the mountains of armaments that the Allies threw against them. Fighting spirit can hold out only so long against superior infrastructure and sheer numbers.
Optimists and visionaries start wars and other grand enterprises – we need them for this purpose – but the pessimists and bean counters usually finish them. It took World War II and the decades since, to show that our graceless, muddle-along, forever-compromising democracies are superior to the inspiring political ideologies they defeated.
Yet despite being less in touch with reality, optimists still seem to enjoy longer, healthier and happier lives than pessimists. This seems most unfair but it’s true! There seems to be some inexplicable, evolutionary advantage in being hopeful despite the odds.
If we get sick, or lose our job or family, or face some other catastrophe, it can be surprisingly reasonable to expect the best. If your oncologist tells you that you only have a year to live, you know that he is only talking about a statistical probability. While his prediction will be accurate in general, he can’t predict your individual case. Some people with that particular cancer will die in weeks, while others may survive for decades. Since you don’t know where you stand on that bell-curve, it makes sense to be hopeful.
The biological benefits of a hopeful outlook goes something like this: Hope = less worry = less cortisol = a better functioning immune system, more growth hormone and a longer life. In other words, it is quite possible that being hopeful could tip the balance in the case of a serious illness.
Another reason for hope is the ferocious determination of all living organisms to survive. No matter how ghastly our lives, only a tiny minority of us ever tries to commit suicide. Those who do try commonly fail. They don’t realise how much their bodies will cling to life when attacked. We may seem fragile, but our constitutions seem to be more like Rasputin’s. After being poisoned, stabbed and shot, the Russian monk was still alive hours later. He finally died from being drowned.
I grew up during the Cold War under the threat of ‘MAD’, or ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’. We believed that a nuclear holocaust could wipe out not just humankind, but all life on this planet.
We now know that this was an arrogant over-assessment of our own capabilities. Humans can make big bangs, destroy civilisation and horribly pollute the planet, but life itself is far too resilient to be killed off by our antics. It has been through holocausts before. Bacteria, cockroaches, crocodiles, rodents and probably some human beings are all good candidates for survival, ready for the next great leap forward.
Sex is another good reason to be hopeful. The result of endlessly scrambling the gene pool is that each of us is utterly unique. Each aspect of ourselves – biology, thought, emotion – operates in ways that are subtly different from everyone else. We are all irreducibly unique when it comes to the crunch.
Because of this genetic diversity, some of us will always survive and even thrive on any kind of catastrophe. The Black Death in 1348 only killed a third of the population of Europe. Nor was it entirely a disaster. The resulting depopulation left the survivors richer and contributed to the end of serfdom. As the I Ching, the Chinese book of wisdom, says “Danger equals opportunity.” One man’s meat is another man’s poison. We can’t tell which it will be until we taste it, so let’s be hopeful.
Another reason to be optimistic is to be found in the sheer complexity of even the simplest living system. In fact, ‘chaos’ is our friend. It was once assumed that if we knew all the causal factors involved say, in an individual’s health, or a weather system, or a chemical interaction, then we could predict the outcome according to Newtonian physics.
We now know that those kinds of predictions are impossible. Any event is caused by millions of smaller events. Each of these are not only too complicated to compute, but it can also have disproportionate effects on the total outcome. Thus the butterfly in Brazil can trigger a typhoon in the Bahamas. A savoury dip can start a relationship. A fondle can end a career.
This is also an argument for the non-existence, or at least the ineffectiveness, of God. How on earth could any kind of intelligence control, oversee, direct or understand all of that?
No matter how much information we collect, we just don’t know what is going to happen next. We understand probabilities very well – science is based on it – but we still can’t predict even a single second ahead. Our world, from cells to supernovas, is infinitely more fluid than we ever imagined. We could regard this pervasive, root-and-branch, uncertainty with dread or with hope. The Buddha saw it with dread. I prefer hope.
For all this, there are still rational limits to hope. Pigs will never fly. Most of us will get eventually get sick and everyone will die. Leopards will not change their spots, and your husband or wife will probably not become the person of your dreams.
Nor will 2 + 2 = 5. At present, we could theoretically end world hunger. By redistributing resources, we could feed everyone, at 2000 calories a day. It won’t happen, but at least we could do it if we wanted to.
We certainly won’t be able to do it in a hundred years time. Given population increase, global warming, soil, air and water degradation, our addiction to growth economies and the fact that we’ve already passed certain tipping points, we wouldn’t have a chance. The figures are way out.
James Lovelock, the scientist who proposed the Gaia hypothesis that the Earth operates like a living organism, expects a massive cull of humankind in the next few decades. He doubts if there will be more than a billion of us left standing by the end of the century.
There is not a snowball’s chance in Hell that we human beings can go on living the way we do now. Anyone who thinks that we can is trying to make 2 +2 = 100. Carbon trading is not going to do the trick. We are feasting on the last grains in the granary, using our extravagance to stave off thoughts of tomorrow. Our best hope is not to be hopeful. Our best hope is to prepare for the coming catastrophes so that some at least will survive. The odds are that some will.
© Perth Meditation Centre 2009