Optimism: it it possible anymore?

This little guy totally gets optimism.
A translated comic from Turkish cartoonist Selçuk Erdem.

I’m a scientist. We are taught from very early on in our scientific careers that it is the responsibility of the scientist to be an ever-discerning skeptic when it comes to the results of our peers (and even our mentors). Requiring that the creator of a scientific product explain rationally – and in the simplest language possible – a theory or result is the cornerstone of modern science. Unfortunately, a major downside of this is that nearly every successful scientist that I known is a critical pessimist.

I’ve lost a lot of respect for many professors who, when they encounter something they don’t quite believe during a colloquium presentation, will get downright nasty when posing questions. I noticed that, as professors “age” in their field, their colloquium questions would go from a polite “do you think you could explain that again” to an outright “you’re wrong, and I’m going to take ten minutes of your lecture time to explain why you’re wrong, and you’re going to listen.” (There is one particular professor at my previous institution who shocked me by becoming this way literally over the course of my time there.)

And I think that it’s because the critical thinking and skepticism that’s required to be a successful scientist naturally breeds pessimism and negativity. The longer you’re engaged in a particular scientific endeavor, the longer you tire of being polite about questioning the correctness of a particular scientific assertion, and the more frustrated you become that you’re dealing with yet another person that’s wrong.

This is one of the reasons why I wanted to leave my field. I noticed, as I became more and more engaged with my colleagues in my specific field of inquiry, that my peer group became less friendly, more investigative, and more argumentative. And because this was my environment, I too found myself approaching things I didn’t understand in a more argumentative fashion.

In essence, I was becoming less of an optimist and more of a pessimist.

Modern Society Scorns Optimism

A part of this evolution from optimism to pessimism is inherently a consequence of the nature of scientific pursuit. But, I think that this natural process was further amplified by a modern culture of pessimism that is perpetuated by the 24 hour news cycle and the ease of access of information via the internet.

While these are not inherently bad things, it is a fact that we are today exposed to bad news more frequently that were were, as a society, fifty years ago. This despite the fact that, for example, violent crime in the United States has shown a clearly decreasing trend in recent history.

Violent crime and cultural optimism?That sure seems to me like that’s something to be optimistic about, but media coverage primarily focuses on the negative because it “sells”. This is because of the negativity effect:

[The] “Negativity effect” refers to the psychological phenomenon that people tend to attach greater weight to negative information than to equally extreme and equally likely positive information in a variety of information processing tasks. Numerous studies of impression formation have found that negative information is weighted more heavily than positive information as impressions of others are formed. There is empirical evidence in political science that shows the importance of the negativity effect in the information processing of the voters. This effect can explain the observed decrease of popularity for a president the longer he is in office. [Source.]

Why I Want to be an Optimist

I want to have a positive vision of the world – to be a determined optimist – mainly because it’s really, really depressing to be a pessimist all the time. It’s easier to focus on the challenges of today without the worry of what tomorrow will bring. It can, literally, make you live longer.

For me, this means changing some thought patterns that were ingrained in me for 8 years of grad school (and, to a lessen extent, four years of undergrad). But I think it’s worth it. Here are a few of changes that I’m implementing to my thinking to help me become more of an optimist.

  • When something positive happens, I’m making a mental note to be thankful for it, and writing down that positive thought in my journal for the day. Putting it on paper makes it more real to me.
  • I’m trying to formulate a longer term plan for myself. Rather than attempting to foresee looming disasters that I should avoid, I’m planning the positives that I want in my life in 5-, 10-, and 25-years.
  • And, when negatives occur, instead of focusing on the woe-is-me side of things, I’m looking at what caused the negative. That way, I can avoid that sort of behavior in the future.

It’s really not much, but it’s enough that I’m finding myself with a pretty positive attitude these days, despite the fact that my family and I are not in the greatest of situations at the moment. And I’m counting on this positivity to carry me (and therefore all of us) through these hard times. It’s little, but in the end, I think that it means a lot.