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The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty, said Winston Churchill. Being optimistic is not about turning a blind eye to difficulties, but focusing on how they can be solved.
Mankind has great challenges ahead, not least in terms of pandemics and climate change, but we also have greater opportunities than ever to solve them thanks to technological development that is historically unparalleled.
There are three basic reasons to be a fact-based optimist.
We live in the best of times
Facts show, as Hans Rosling's lectures showed with great clarity, that humanity has never been better off. We live longer, have a higher quality of life, and are healthier than ever, and it keeps getting better. The pandemic has meant a break in this incomparable development, but with perspective, the trend is clear, and much is now pointing to a rapid recovery. Technology, science, and democracy are the main drivers of this development.
Despite this, the majority of the world's population, especially in the West, believe that things are getting worse. Most people have a completely wrong picture of the world where we should be optimistic about development but are pessimistic. Like Rosling's Gapminder, this is something we want to change and as soon as possible. An erroneous picture of the world in which many believe that democracy and the global institutions that have been built have failed creates a dangerous breeding ground for authoritarian and anti-democratic forces. Pessimism is life-threatening.
We can influence the future
Fact-based optimism is about having a knowledge-based and well-calibrated view of the future and its uncertainties. It accepts that the future is not written in stone and acts on the working hypothesis that the chances of a bright future depend on how we act today.
To what extent can we influence the future and how much is about chance and natural processes that we have no control over? Just like with climate change, it's something we do not really know, but why take a chance? The rationale is therefore to assume that our actions play a role and to have an optimistic view that we can create a good future. The irrational, destructive, and life-threatening thing is to have a pessimistic view, where we risk influencing our future in the completely wrong direction.
Optimists feel better and live longer
Numerous studies have been done on optimism and pessimism over the years. Overall, pretty much all of them point out that optimists live longer and are less likely to have a range of ailments such as high blood pressure and diabetes and, unsurprisingly, live happier lives with more friends. Our attitude towards life thus affects us to a great extent also physically and very little speaks for any advantages of a pessimistic view. It can be rather life-threatening.
There is certainly one advantage to pessimism: by always believing the worst and painting horrible scenarios, it is possible, perhaps, to protect oneself from disappointment.
It becomes like a kind of a pacifier or cozy blanket to protect oneself behind. A way to avoid trying to solve problems, avoid sticking out your chin, and risk being disputed for suggesting solutions.
But that's not how we move humanity forward and create a good future, nor was it the way the good forces emerged victorious from one of history's darkest events. Ask Winston Churchill.