The psychologist Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) was asked to pick a single important lesson from his decades of research. He said this: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” I find this to be a wise and consoling maxim. We tend to get stuck in mental moments, particularly those that make us feel bad. Whatever our anxieties are focused on gets magnified in importance. Weeks or years later, we wonder why we were concerned about it, if we remember being concerned about it at all.
At the moment, all anyone can think about is the virus. For a few weeks towards the end of summer, we allowed ourselves to get animated about other things. The sudden re-emergence of Brexit into the national conversation was almost welcome (OK, I said almost). But as the days have shortened, our horizons have narrowed again. Right now, it can feel as if there’s no end in sight. I think it’s quite possible, however, that we will look back on the whole pandemic as a moment that passed quickly.
There are reasons to be cheerful amid the gloom. Even if we don’t know how to defeat this enemy yet, we know a lot more about how it operates. Offstage, an unprecedented scientific collaboration is under way to find vaccines and treatments. Doctors and nurses are learning fast about how to handle the symptoms. When we come out the other side of this, we’ll be far better prepared for any future public health challenge. In some ways, we will be a more adaptable and resilient society, if only through necessity.
As you can tell, I’m an optimist, which is not a very respectable thing to be at present, at least among the people I hang out with. Like so much else, optimism has become polarised by association – Boris Johnson has tarnished the brand. It’s hard to talk about brighter days ahead without unintentionally emulating the great wind-tunnel-in-chief.
But, then, optimism has never been cool. It’s an attitude that is inherently vulnerable to scorn, in a way that pessimism somehow isn’t. Express optimism and you risk being attacked for being naive, vacuous, even irresponsible. Express pessimism and you can usually expect people to nod sagely along. The worst that will happen is that someone will tell you to cheer up. Taking a pessimistic stance instinctively feels like the smarter, safer option.
Let me test this in real time. I believe that humanity is likely to deal successfully with climate change. I think there’s every possibility the world will get to net-zero emissions before the halfway point of this century and that we will do it in a way that does not require the painful reshaping of society envisioned by some climate activists.
The use of alternative energy sources is rising much faster than expectations, as is the capacity for storing energy. The economist Philip K Verleger argues that the fossil fuel industry is in much steeper decline than most climate models assume; a decline hastened by the ruthlessness of capitalism. Investors are pulling money out of oil companies and putting it into tech stocks and green energy. Exxon will soon be regarded as Time magazine is now – a fallen giant. Combine that with political progress – there are signs that China is stepping up its commitment to the cause – and the biggest challenge of all can be met.
Are your hackles rising? Quite possibly. But the case I just sketched out is at least as evidence-based as many of the dire claims about planetary destruction that are more widely spread. The future is stubbornly unpredictable, which means some degree of optimism is always available. I think we should take that option as often as we reasonably can. It’s the right thing to do, in more than one way.
A reasonable objection to optimism is that it creates complacency. That is why climate activists paint apocalyptic scenarios and why public health experts are quick to dampen hopes of a vaccine. But the anti-optimists should consider a quirk of human nature of which doctors will be only too aware: when confronted with bad news, our instinct is to avoid it. Conversely, tell us something good is possible and we feel motivated to make it come true.
A study of patients in an alcoholic recovery programme found that optimistic people were more likely than pessimists to remain in treatment and stay sober. Optimism makes people more open to change and more determined to achieve it. When seeking to persuade voters, politicians should heed this lesson, but often do not. The left, in particular, consistently makes the mistake of presenting every issue in the grimmest terms possible, which leaves the field free for the most buffoonish of optimists to win the day.
The case for optimism is more than tactical, however; it’s moral, too. Optimism is associated with better sleep, lower risk of heart attacks and strokes, and longer life. If there were a drug that had all these benefits, we’d demand it be made available on the NHS as a social good. Yet instead of creating a media ecosystem that distributes this treatment as widely as possible, we have one that seems to thrive on doom. It’s easier to get clicks for a story that says the world is going to hell than one that says, for instance, that global child mortality is in dramatic decline.
Pessimism and optimism are moods, and moods are contagious. An increasing number of Western teenagers, particularly girls in middle-class, information-rich families, are suffering from poor mental health. As the parent of a teenager in difficulty put it to me recently, our children grow up with a constant ambient hum of anxiety about the future. We ought to think carefully before deciding to emphasise the worst that could happen. It might make us feel smarter, but it can make others lose hope.
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union