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Pessimism or optimism?

Optimism begets peace of mind, tranquility and possibly happiness, while pessimism begets worry, gloom and anxiety. Does this mean that we should ignore negative outlooks and only listen to those that are positive and optimistic? Maybe, but that would expose us to the vagaries of the negative events — if they occur — without being prepared for them.

About a decade ago, the bestselling book “The Black Swan” addressed this question very aptly. Its author posited that almost all the major changes in human history were triggered by a “Black Swan Event”. A black swan is an extremely rare bird that people don’t expect to encounter in their lifetime and, hence, are not prepared for it.

Not only are they not prepared, but they totally trust their present circumstances and expect them to continue indefinitely. Just as caged turkeys totally trust their keeper who lovingly feeds them daily, until one day (on Thanksgiving), they discover to their horror, that their beloved keeper is their slaughterer. We can apply this example to case of sheep who lovingly follow the farmer until they suddenly discover on the feast of “Eid Al Adha”, that he is their murderer.

Similarly, but with more historical data and analysis, the book, “Why Nations Fail” addresses a somewhat related issue. The book’s authors analyze the factors that are shared by failed nations indicating the presence of “Critical Junctures” in these nations’ history where, the presence or absence of these factors led to a nation’s breakout into development and modernity, or regressed to a failed status, usually as a colony with little hope of a better future.

We tend to support the adage “better safe than sorry”. And to explain the reasoning behind this tendency, we illustrate the case of road traffic signs. They are not pessimistic in the sense that they don’t expect you to crash into the oncoming cars in a 2-way road, or to skid off the mountain ledge at an acute bend, they do so to warn you of the likely danger out of love and caring for your safety. In no way do they wish to distress or upset your mood.

The primary objective of life is survival. That means not to fall prey to disasters, disease, enemies, catastrophes, etc and if you succeed in that, then you have a chance to realize and achieve all your other goals — and the opposite is true.

The first step in survival is to identify the dangers that can undermine you or your existence. The next is to analyze these dangers, discern their causes and think up ways to avoid them or mitigate their effects.

Some may be quite happy with their existing status quo and wish for things to remain unchanged. This is not contentment, but likely the lack of imagination to visualize better conditions and work towards them. This is very similar to the above two examples of the turkeys and sheep.

Change, to the better or the worse, is a fact of life and to restrict oneself to optimistic outlooks does not necessarily reflect happiness so much as short sightedness and/or apathy. Some may follow the motto of the famous song “Don’t worry, be happy”, but if they listen to the rest of the song’s lyrics, they will discover it also advises: Not to worry and be happy even if someone takes your bed and you have no place to sleep, if the landlord threatens to evict you for not paying the rent and if you are so penniless that you can’t enjoy life. And finally, it justifies such an attitude by not wishing to disturb all the others, who are obviously also living on cloud nine. While such an outlook towards life may be condoned at an individual level, under the pretext of personal choice, but to apply it to society as whole, turns it into an act of gross negligence and carelessness.

The choices of a society are many and diverse and certainly differ from the “Happy Butterfly” choices of a carefree individual. The one paramount choice shared by the entire society is that of survival, which means it must avoid becoming either a turkey or a sheep and remain open to pessimistic scenarios — and if it makes them happy, without ignoring the optimistic ones.


By Marwan Salamah



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