It’s hot in the UK. Very hot. And not the good kind. It’s not the only place suffering a heatwave. And yes we get it: there are places around the world always hotter than here. But in defence of the fact that the country was put under emergency alerts – and we’ve all been talking non-stop about the weather and how we miss the rain – the UK is not a country cut out for 40ºC weather. We don’t have enough fans, ice or air conditioning. We don’t even have any words to describe our torture other than "hot", "very hot", "extremely hot" and "hello, I can’t breathe anymore".
We have turned the weather discussion into an industrial complex, but probably only to hide from a frightening descent into pessimism. The sense of impending doom doesn’t just affect the UK, it feels omnipresent and threatening like a dark cloud. And we really want it to break: like a torrent of optimism in the stifling heat.
And it’s not just the atmosphere that is heavy; on everyone’s minds is the very real feeling that this is just the beginning of a radical shift in our climate. The wildfires that have broken out across the UK as well as continental Europe aren’t just burning land, trees, homes and entire landscapes, they are eviscerating our optimism.
It’s easy to get sucked into the sense we are now living constantly in a world that seems excessively downcast. The war in Ukraine and the concomitant crises of fuel and food rage on. Countries are in chaos – just look at what is happening in Sri Lanka. Inflation is going up. There’s a cost-of-living crisis. Covid-19 is far from over; in fact, cases are once again rising in some places. Before you write in with all sorts of other wars, famines, conflicts and troubles, just know that there are so many that are impossible to list, and I fear that what shreds of optimism that remain must be clung on to and magnified.
As individuals, optimism is supposed to make us live longer, make us healthier and also make us more successful. And that’s no surprise. As the late US president Dwight D Eisenhower once pointed out, “pessimism never won any battle”. That is to say, when faced with risk and opportunity, being pessimistic about the things that could go wrong can mean that no change or progress is made.
Optimism is what has made society today. Optimists move things forward. Pessimists don’t.
And yet, we find ourselves in an imbalance towards pessimism. Our public discourse – driven by politicians and the media – is driven typically towards the negative. Positive news stories are small. Sometimes their inclusion is so notable they are the quirky feel-good story at the end, a small salve to soothe the wounds from the relentless negativity of current affairs. No wonder so many of us find ourselves tuning out the news after a point. There’s only so much the soul can bear.
I get the feeling of pessimism. The promises of the brave new world, the space race, the post-war peace treaties … and that’s before the promises of the post-millennial world of technology that would break boundaries and democratise power, which, instead, seems to have taken dark turns and created new problems, some of which are so intangible that we don’t even know what they are.
But to move forward and create change, we must revive optimism. The sci-fi author Arthur C Clarke, whose writings have been prescient in many ways, took this view. “I am an optimist,” he said. “Anyone interested in the future has to be, otherwise he would simply shoot himself.”
The good news is that we can learn optimism. Psychologists offer plenty of mind hacks. Notice good things as they happen. Train your mind to believe you can actually make good things happen in your life. Don’t blame yourself when things go wrong. When something good happens, give yourself credit. And remind yourself that, in general, setbacks are temporary.
There’s something about creating forward momentum, too: don’t dwell on the problem, focus on the solutions. Think about what lies ahead rather than the past, or even present problems.
When I look back at the pandemic, it makes me reflect on the difference between well-being – an almost passive, inert state that we all described and explored in enormous detail without anything else to do – and how little we spoke of living in a state of optimism: the mental state that helps us move towards a brighter future. One can be in a poor state of well-being at the same time as being optimistic. And then using that optimism to galvanise for a positive future state.
We can then inject this personal optimism into our collective pessimism. Personal optimism often derives from the feeling that we have some control and stake in our personal lives and can, therefore, deliver the positive future we hope for. We need to bring that sense of personal control and stake into our feelings and actions about society. As the late British prime minister Winston Churchill said, "an optimist is one who sees the opportunity in every difficulty".