“I fear the world is entering a dark age,” said Igor Galynker, a psychiatrist who specializes in suicide research and intervention. However, he added: “But on an individual level, is it about helping people deal with this and finding ways to live with and fight this? I am very optimistic.”
Galynker’s perspective illustrates the paradox of professionals working on the front lines of different crises—suicide prevention, climate science, palliative care for children, or even the act of imagining a dystopian future in literature—and who they demand that they face the worst possible outcomes.
If you are working to improve the world, do you have to be an optimist? Or does pessimism better prepare you to face the challenges that the future presents?
It is believed that the ability to cultivate and maintain optimism originates from a combination of circumstantial and innate factors, such as accumulated life experiences and the heritability. According to Tali Sharot, author of the book The optimism bias: A tour of the irrationally positive Brain, optimism works as a kind of “cognitive time travel” that allows humans to plan for the future. The trait of optimism is likely to have developed evolutionarily because having “positive expectations” has enormous health benefits and can even extend life.
Some professionals, whether they identify as optimists or not, are able to stay motivated to find solutions even when the big picture looks bleak. Often a key to their motivation is the belief that, despite the bleak prognosis, they are making a real difference to the people and communities they interact with, which in turn fuels a belief in the possibility of a better future in general.
Over the past three decades, Galynker has personally evaluated or treated nearly 10,000 patients struggling with suicidal ideation. Three of them took their own lives while in her care. While he is always deeply affected by these deaths, he says that he focuses on helping his patients come out of a state of crisis so that he can help them deal with the underlying problems and long-term risk factors that led to their deaths. that situation. Being able to treat his patients successfully makes him incredibly optimistic, even though he is worried at the same time. due to the continuous increase of suicide rates in the United States.
“I’m pessimistic about the human race,” Galynker said. “I’m optimistic about people.”
For some, being prone to optimism is not necessary to work for change. “I don’t consider myself an optimist at all,” said Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who is a marine biologist and co-founder of Urban Ocean Laboratorya research center focused on climate and ocean policy for coastal cities, as well as the author of the book What if we get it right?: visions of climate futurism. Johnson explained that she is often characterized as optimistic due to her cheerful attitude. “But the truth is that you can be happy and at the same time not assume that everything will work out in the end,” she said. “And I think that’s how we move on, right?”
Johnson, who was raised by parents who were civil rights activists, said she had long understood the importance of working pragmatically for a better future: “For me it’s not a matter of joy, sadness, optimism or pessimism. It’s just my moral duty to be part of the solutions.”
Focusing on outcomes we can control, and changes we as individuals can influence, can allow us to be optimistic at the micro level, even pessimistic about the bigger picture of the future, Galynker said. Maintaining this sense of personal efficiency can be key when doing a difficult job.
Hal Siden has worked for more than two decades in what some might consider the least optimistic field possible: he is the medical director of canuck placethe first hospice care facility for children in North America. But like Galynker, he’s seen how optimism pays dividends in his work.
Siden considers himself a pragmatic optimist who is aware of the fact that he moves through the world with relative ease as a well-educated white man, a privilege that can make it easier to believe that things will work out. He has seen tragedy countless times in his work treating terminally ill children. And yet he, too, sees reason to hope.
In her time at Canuck Place, Siden said, the place’s focus has expanded, along with palliative care, to include more symptom management for long-term illnesses — that is, treatments that don’t cure young patients, but prolong survival. Siden compares his philosophy to making chewy candies: “We are extending lives.” He draws strength from the small ways the center is able to bring people relief in dark and painful times, and in the rare cases where children end up defying the odds. “I just released a young man from our program at 18 years old, who I knew as a baby, when he came to us from the intensive care unit,” he recounted. “After spending six weeks there, he came here to die.” But with treatment, the little boy defied the worst expectations. “And this is not unusual,” Siden said.
Another source of hope is the progress Siden has seen throughout his career. “Every day I see diseases that literally disappear in front of my eyes,” she said.
Focusing on small victories and achievable goals is essential to resist pessimism and work sustainably to find solutions, said Hamira Kobusingye, a Ugandan climate activist and educator who leads Climate Justice Africa.
Uganda is one of many countries struggling with the day-to-day effects of the climate crisis. In the recent COP27 conferenceKobusingye was able to meet with some of the nation’s leaders to discuss the challenges facing his home country. “Is it a breakthrough or an important victory?” he wondered, referring to the encounter. “No, it’s not, but it’s a step forward,” he said. “And as optimists, that’s what we’re really holding on to. We know that, step by step, we will reach the goal”.
Kobusingye is part of a rising wave of activists, academics and TikTok influencers who are challenging environmental pessimism. Rather than let gloomy forecasts drive her to inaction and helplessness, Kobusingye cultivates optimism by focusing on solutions.
“I am a daughter of action,” Kobusingye said. “That’s what my mom always told me.” Growing up in a single-parent home with her brother, she learned early on that if she wanted a different life, she would have to work to make it happen. “I come from the slums, I have seen nights when there was no food in the house,” she said. She became an outspoken optimist, she commented, because “pessimism makes you give up easily.”
Nnedi Okorafor, an author of speculative fiction, knows all too well how important it is not to succumb to fatalism. Okorafor, a naturally positive person, calls herself an “irrational optimist” and although she is aware that she lives in a “troubled” era, she leans, above all, towards hope.
His optimism was cemented when, as a freshman in college, he was unable to walk after undergoing what was supposed to be relatively routine surgery to treat scoliosis. It was during his recovery period that Okorafor first began to write creatively. In the end, thanks to intensive physiotherapy, he managed to regain sensation in his legs. “If I hadn’t honed my positivity for many years before that happened, I don’t know if I would have been able to walk again,” he said.
More than 20 years later, that positive attitude is present in the works that have made her one of the most celebrated speculative fiction writers of her generation, with stories that are often set on the African continent. She has strived to infuse her novels with optimism, even in a genre she tends to resist: the popular belief is that doomsday stories are more marketable.
“In a lot of my more recent stories I’ve strayed a bit from dystopia,” Okorafor stated, noting that even in his 2010 dystopian novel, who fears deathyou could get hope and joy in the pages. “I’m really obsessed with the idea that the future is positive and utopian.”
“It is important to imagine a positive future so that a positive future can happen,” he said. “If we just keep writing dystopias, we’ll be paving the way to the abyss.”
If you are having suicidal thoughts, in the United States you can call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or visit TalkingSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a Senior Editor for Narrative Projects working on the series continuation of black historyand was editor-in-chief of gal-dem magazine. @charliebcuff