5 ways optimism can be a force for social impact
Optimism is not about always expecting the positive, but rather, seeking ways to optimize available solutions.
Last December, Pantone announced that “Living Coral” is the 2019 color of the year, “symbolizing our innate need for optimism and joyful pursuits.”
It got me thinking: why should we be optimistic this year?
Just this month, I received a flash of inspiration from TIME’s annual “The Art of Optimism” special edition, dedicated to people “changing how we see our world.” The magazine is guest-edited by film director Ava DuVernay, the second guest editor in TIME’s 96-year history. (The first was Bill Gates, who edited TIME’s first “Optimists” issue, back in January 2018.) This year’s special edition spotlights 34 people, including director Guillermo del Toro (“The Most Radical and Rebellious Choice You Can Make Is to Be Optimistic”) and actor-activist Laverne Cox (“When I Need Hope, I Look to the History of Black Brilliance.”)
Here at enso, we are eternally optimistic about using the power of creativity to generate positive impact. We even framed a quote from a fortune cookie and hung it on our wall, as a daily reminder: “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”
But what does optimism mean in the face of turmoil or struggle? How is it possible to always see the positive? To view the glass half-full? To expect a win-win scenario?
I would argue that these definitions don’t do justice to true optimism. Foolishly expecting the best doesn’t allow you to face setbacks, deal with failure, or carve a path forward for progress. In the hard work of advancing positive social change, blind optimism doesn’t deal with reality, and therefore, is futile.
I’ve come across a better definition of an optimist by the author Vera Nazarian that makes the most sense to me:
“An optimist is neither naive, nor blind to the facts, nor in denial of grim reality. An optimist believes in the optimal usage of all options available, no matter how limited. As such, an optimist always sees the big picture. How else to keep track of all that’s out there? An optimist is simply a proactive realist.
An idealist focuses only on the best aspects of all things (sometimes in detriment to reality); an optimist strives to find an effective solution. A pessimist sees limited or no choices in dark times; an optimist makes choices.”
With that definition in mind, here are 5 reasons why we should try to be optimistic in 2019 and beyond.
1. Optimism is good for our health and happiness.
The health benefits of optimism are well-documented. An upbeat attitude could be key to coping with chronic pain, according to a new study of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Optimism can actually increase your life span by nearly eight years, according to developmental molecular biologist and bestselling author John Medina of “Brain Rules for Aging Well.”
Optimism is also beneficial to our emotional well-being. Deepika Chopra, who started her career in traditional therapy, is a self-described OPTIMISM DOCTOR™️ & Visual Imagery Expert. She specializes in “evidence based manifestation,” helping clients live the life they want. Ms. Chopra believes that through meditation, movement, acts of kindness, gratitude and other mindful practices, we can all train ourselves to be more optimistic and reach our “highest selves” — essentially, creating optimal conditions for all aspects of our life. In taking care of ourselves, we can take better care of those around us.
“An ‘Optimist’ is someone that holds two important beliefs: first, that their problems, (which they are aware exist) are temporary, and second, that their personal actions can indeed diminish or alleviate these problems.” — Deepika Chopra
2. Optimism may heal division.
Researcher Carol Graham, author of “Happiness for All?”, found that there is an “optimism gap” between the rich and poor in the United States, and if left unchecked, could lead to increasing social isolation.
“The most desperate people and places are poor and vulnerable middle class whites in the rust belt, where available jobs are shrinking due to the hollowing out of manufacturing and people are extremely isolated by distance and climate,” she concluded. “In contrast, cities, which are more racially diverse, are healthier, more hopeful, and happier.”
These trends could explain the anger and desperation that drove the 2016 U.S. presidential election results or the U.K.’s Brexit referendum.
But Graham also stumbled upon some unexpected data in her 2015 research: among poor groups in America, the most optimistic were poor blacks; the second most optimistic were Hispanics; and trailing far behind were poor whites. This seemed counter-intuitive to her, considering that the African-American community was facing tragic incidents of police violence that erupted into riots in places like Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore that year.
As minorities experience higher levels of optimism, Graham found, they also have longer life expectancies, higher life satisfaction and lower stress incidence than poor whites.
“The highest costs of being poor in the U.S. are not in the form of material goods or basic services, as in developing countries, but in the form of unhappiness, stress, and lack of hope.” — Carol Graham
When looking at trends in inequality from the perspective of social well-being, Graham’s research indicates that optimism—or a sense of hope—can lead to improved economic outcomes, bridge social divides, and could even save lives, for the most poor and vulnerable among us.
3. Optimism helps us identify opportunities.
In 1994, two brothers designed and sold T-shirts with positive messages on them to counter negative news at the time. Today, their company Life is Good has continued to fulfill its mission of spreading “good vibes” by selling apparel, accessories and home goods; publishing editorial content; and helping kids in need through a charitable foundation.
In a 2014 interview, co-founder and “Chief Executive Optimist” Bert Jacobs said that optimistic leaders build the healthiest companies. It’s worth noting that Life is Good is now a $100 million lifestyle brand.
“Optimistic leaders focus on opportunities. Optimism is magnetic. Optimism enables open-mindedness, and open-mindedness enables collaboration, creativity, and problem solving. Optimists invent solutions that become genuine points of difference in the market. And points of difference in the market build healthy businesses.” — Bert Jacobs
4. Optimism helps us solve problems.
In his book, “Enlightenment Now,” cognitive scientist and Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker urges readers to embrace the reality of progress. Contrary to doom-and-gloom headlines we may read, Pinker’s data-driven research shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise worldwide. Pinker acknowledges that not everyone is experiencing constant improvement, but we shouldn’t “give up on the institutions that made our progress possible.” Ultimately, he believes that problems are solvable.
“An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.” — Steven Pinker
5. Optimists have more fun.
Optimism is an independent brewery founded by husband-and-wife duo Troy Hakala and Gay Gilmore, located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. They recognize that beer won’t change the world, but they do what they can to create an optimal environment for their guests and employees, such as adopting a no-tipping practice, providing gender-neutral bathrooms, and cheering up furloughed employees during the government shutdown with a free pint of booze.
In a recent Instagram post, after celebrating three years in operation, the brewery posted a quote from Bill and Melinda Gates’s annual letter—a call-to-action to #chooseoptimism: