The Need for Optimism

American-style hope is the key to European progress.

Illustrations by Remy Labesque

At TED events, most recently the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, there is almost a radical sense of optimism. To use the image of the glass half full or half empty, here are gatherings rife with people who don’t bother with that question, because they actually want to make the glass overflow. For them, being optimistic has powerful ramifications. Indeed, it seems that most people at TED events understand that without a hopeful, forward-looking attitude, innovation and progress move at a sluggish pace.

To truly gauge the power of optimism, it helps to put it in the context of a culture of pessimism. Optimism doesn’t come easily to Europeans. It comes almost too easily to Americans. There is something of a transatlantic rift in basic disposition, and at the root of this rift is a different sense of time. Americans perceive the present as the beginning of the future; Europeans as the end point of history. This has nothing to do with the worn out cliché that America lacks a sense of history, which is easily contradicted by the regular appearances of weighty tombs of historical biographies on The New York Times best-seller list. Rather, it has to do with the almost obsessive celebration of anniversaries and historical dates in the pages of newspapers and on TV in Europe. The constant flow of announcements of anniversaries of deaths and events that happened decades and centuries ago has created a strangely morbid and comforting gloom among Europeans. This deeply ingrained sense of mortality seems to acknowledge the depth of our history while feeding our cultural pessimism.

If a society obsesses about the past it is obviously not dealing with its future, specifically a future that will be shaped by science and technology. In America, these disciplines are embraced enthusiastically. They are driving forces in the types of debates about existence and meaning that used to be the exclusive domains of philosophy, theology, sociology, and other humanities long the domain of Europe’s academic ivory towers.

There are good historical reasons for why Europeans greet optimism with suspicion and doubt. For example, the most heated debates in Europe are about the new forms of Internet use, such as social networks and the geoweb, and about genetic engineering and other approaches to medicine that go beyond prevention and healing to the possibilities of self-optimization. For Europeans, this brings up a dark past, full of colonial geo-politics and conflict, most notably in Germany, where mass media, eugenics, and the ideal of a superhuman in one form or another were the driving forces of historic disasters during two world wars. So, the cultural pessimism of Europe comes out of experience, not just mentality. Survivors of these experiences are still members of its societies. They include Germans who lived through the Third Reich, French who remember the Algerian War, and Spaniards who lived through the Franco dictatorship, to name just the most recent tragedies.

In fact, bad news has been the leitmotif of European history for quite a few centuries. Only recently have young generations dared to be optimistic on a public stage. Young people in Europe feel that the great challenges of a globalized world won’t be met with a pessimistic outlook or with an obsession about the past. And to their credit, they have had to overcome a strong prejudice and distrust of optimism—and a belief that being hopeful is merely a superficial take on life prevalent in America, a place that lacks a sense of history and has never experienced suffering.

Some could say that radical optimism can lead to disaster. Last year, the essayist Barbara Ehrenreich published her book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. In it, she shows how a fundamentalistic optimism created the gung-ho mentality that drove the financial hysteria and eventual crisis of the past decade. Esoteric delusions and collective denial are indeed forms of optimism gone wrong. Still, there’s no denying that people crave optimism in a world where pessimism has been the order of the day for decades.

To paraphrase historian Robert Kagan’s conclusion that Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus—the former living in a Hobbesian reality, the latter in a Kantian paradise—Americans might be driven by the spark of science, Europeans by the blaze of the humanities. There might be a need for a kind of checks and balances of thoughts and ideas that can be met by combining the two.

One of this year’s TEDGlobal speakers may have offered the road map for bridging the pessimism-optimism gap. Matt Ridley is a British science writer and journalist. He is also the author of the book The Rational Optimist (see Ridley's original essay in this issue of design mind, here). By aligning the two words “rational” and “optimist,” Ridley has made the case for a new worldview, one that could help Europeans overcome the impulse to shy away from the future because of its dark past while also checking the American urge to blindly pursue whatever happiness seems apt at the time. Rational optimism could very well mark the beginning of the future.

Andrian Kreye edits the Arts and Essays section of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily in Germany, and was one of a handful of international journalists invited to attend TEDGlobal.

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