You Are A Meliorist

Linguistics to Make You Happy

Meliorism is a good word. You are probably a meliorist — say, if you got out of bed this morning — even if you don’t know what the word means. You could probably figure it out, though, with a little linguistic deconstruction.

The –ism/-ist pair of suffixes should be recognizable enough, given that they are among the most flexible word-endings we have in our language. Chuck them onto just about any noun, verb, or adjective and you’ll have yourself a coherent — or coherent-enough — word. Blueberryism could be the belief in the existence of blueberries, or perhaps in their superiority over the many other types of berries. A jumpist is probably a disciple of jumpism, which might be the school of thought that considers jumping a much better means of bipedal transportation than walking. It’s a simple formula: the –ist is always the believer in (or doer of) the –ism; to find the meaning, all you need is the root.

The root melior- means ‘to make better’, and a meliorist is someone who believes in making things better, but it goes deeper than that. For reference, think of the more quotidian roots optim- and pessim-, the best and worst, respectively. The optimist, drinker of glass half-full, believes that in any given situation the best outcome will happen. The pessimist, drinker of glass half-empty, believes that the worst outcome will happen. In most situations these drinkers are joined by a third, which would make for a nice party, except for the fact that the third drinker is the realist, the ultimate buzzkill. When he shows up, the realist politely reminds everybody that it doesn’t matter how you look at the glass, because the outcome of the situation is really nothing more than random chance, and the most probable outcome will probably happen. He is right, in a way, but also very wrong, as are the others, for removing themselves from the situation entirely.

For the meliorist, the good outcome might happen and the bad outcome might happen, but a little elbow grease will tip the scales in either direction.

Because really, as humans, we have quite of bit of say in how things eventually shake down. This is where it gets deeper: meliorism, really a philosophical term, is the belief in human agency, in possibility.

In its philosophical domain, meliorism tends to find mention in esoteric debates about the existence of free will; and you could get your existential core rattled by some eerily compelling arguments for the lack thereof — free will, that is. But the core rattling should be nothing more than a metaphysical massage. While these arguments might be fun to think about, they won’t do you much good. Nihilism has never actually improved anyone’s life; it is the mental equivalent of self-induced paralysis. Sam Harris — the neuroscientist turned public intellectual who does not believe in free will — puts it this way:

“Diligence and wisdom still yield better results than sloth and stupidity.”

Meliorists do things. Remember, you got out of bed this morning.

All great people are meliorists — and probably only great because of their meliorism. I can’t personally speak for their individual stances on free will, but people like Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, and Michael Jordan most likely believed their individual efforts would amount to something. What other reason could there be for effort at all?

There is of course the sinister logic that belief in possibility necessarily invites the sting of disappointment. Well, yeah. But should you wish to forever relieve yourself from the responsibility of failure, consider the implications: complete and total impotence. Sadness lies in the way of impotence. Disappointment is a welcome alternative. So welcome it; you cannot be a meliorist without it.

Now that you know what meliorism means, pay attention to it — it is the very thing that moves you. Cut through the bullshit of optimism and pessimism, of positive psychology and outcome independence; they are terms of abstract nothingness, of mental gymnastics. Don’t force yourself to think or feel in a certain way, or to qualify how you see a glass of water. Think how you think and feel how you feel. Just see the glass. When you take a look, and you’d like some more water, fill up the damn glass. You can do that. You are a meliorist.