How Can We Restore Americans’ Sense of Optimism?

Gregg Easterbrook
Gregg Easterbrook Contributing Editor, The Atlantic, Visiting Fellow (2000-08), Brookings Institution, Author, Arrow of History (forthcoming, 2018)

June 11, 2008

Gregg Easterbrook joins William Damon of Stanford University, Iris Chen of “I Have A Dream” Foundation, Martin E. Marty of University of Chicago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University, Alan Simpson former United States Senator, Jean Johnson of Public Agenda, Ruth Wooden of Public Agenda, Terrie M. Williams of The Terrie Williams Agency, Kelly Ward of New Profit Inc., and Arthur C. Brooks of Syracuse University to examine the issue of restoring Americans’ sense of optimism on NewTalk, a running discussion board.

Opening Statement:

Jean Johnson:
  There are many signs of public pessimism. Most Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction. People worry about their children’s prospects. Many despair about the state of politics. If views like these become entrenched, it would signal a palpable shift in the traditional American outlook.

Yet it’s also fair to ask whether Americans really should be so optimistic given what they see around them—economic uncertainty for all but the wealthy, a government that doesn’t address genuine problems, schools that leave millions of children behind, a culture that celebrates the juvenile and the shallow.

Some have suggested that optimism has faded because Americans have lost confidence in the country’s ability to shape its own future—not because of “facts on the ground.” People who feel powerless are not likely to see a rosy future.

What do we mean when we talk about restoring Americans’ sense of optimism? Is optimism always a good thing, or does discontent have its purposes? What makes people feel confident about the future? Why aren’t we as confident as we once were?

Martin E. Marty:  I’d replace “optimism” with “hope.” America, said Lincoln, was the “hope,” not the “optimistic focus” of the world. It is dangerous for a nation to lose hope. It is healthy for it to give up on optimism. Optimism has to be built on illusion and delusion. Things won’t turn out the way an optimist thinks it will. First off: we all will die. We all have limits. But even many people in concentration camps, as Viktor Fankl told us, on the day they knew they would die, shared their last crust of bread and gave signs of hope. Hope is based on realistic assessment; it implies “my” engagement with a future, it does not just “let things happen.” Anything we can do to engage the future in such a way that “realistic hope” spreads is good for the nation and its citizens, in my view.

Gregg Easterbrook:  Optimism is good because it improves your experience of life, and increases your odds of success. If you’re on a boat in a storm, your odds are better if you are optimistic—become pessimistic and you’re finished. Bear in mind, optimism has nothing to do with Pollyanna thinking. An optimist can be worried, angry, cynical: just also possessed of the belief that a positive outcome remains possible.

The United States is in far better shape than a boat in a storm. The country has all kinds of problems, some due to our own bad choices (the war in Iraq, America’s low standing in the world community); some due to our own moral failings (inaction against poverty, adoration of the rich); and some due to forces that are mainly good but need to be managed (economic globalization, rapid worldwide increase in resource consumption).

But it’s way too trendy to speak of the United States as in “crisis.” Living standards are the highest they have ever been, including for the working class. Unemployment is low—please, don’t take that for granted! Most diseases are in decline, all forms of pollution except greenhouse gases are declining, crime is declining, education levels keep rising. The case for optimism is strong.

Would you rather live as an average person in the United States of the present day or in this or any other nation at any time in the past? That question answers itself, and is a reason for fundamental optimism.

Read the full discussion »