Do you have to be an optimist to work towards a better world?

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The Bright Side is a series about how optimism works in our brains and affects the world around us.

“I fear the world is entering a dark age,” said Dr. Igor Galinkar, a psychiatrist who specializes in suicide research and intervention. But, he added: “On a personal level, helping people deal with it, and find ways to live with it or fight it? I’m very optimistic.”

Dr. Gelinker’s perspective contrasts that of professionals working on the front lines of various crises – whether it’s suicide prevention, climate science, hospice care for children or even a dystopian future in literature. imagine – that demands you to fight with the worst possible outcomes.

If You’re Working to Improve the World, Should You Be an Optimist? Or does pessimism better prepare you to meet the challenges of the future?

The ability to develop and maintain optimism is believed to result from a mix of situational and innate factors, such as cumulative life experiences and heredity. According to Tali Sharot, author of “The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain,” optimism functions as a kind of “cognitive time travel.” So that man can plan for the future. It is likely that the trait of optimism evolved evolutionarily because having “positive expectations” has been shown to have major health benefits, and may even prolong life.

Some professionals, whether optimistic or not, are able to stay motivated to find solutions even when the big picture looks bleak. Often key to their drive is the belief that, despite the bleak prognosis, they are making a real difference to the individuals and communities they connect with – which in turn fosters a belief in the possibility of a better future overall.

Over the past three decades, Dr. Gelinker has personally evaluated or treated nearly 10,000 patients struggling with suicidal thoughts. Three of them have ended their lives while under her care. While he is always deeply affected by these deaths, he said he focuses on helping his patients move out of crisis by helping them address the underlying issues and long-term risk factors that can lead to death. brought them there. Being able to successfully treat his patients has made him incredibly optimistic, even as he worries about the continuing rise in suicide rates across the United States.

“I am pessimistic about the human race,” said Dr. Gelinker. “I am optimistic about individuals.”

For some people, leaning toward optimism is not necessary to work toward change. “I wouldn’t call myself an optimist,” said Ayanna Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and co-founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank focused on climate and ocean policy for coastal cities, as well as author of “What If We Could Fix It?” Take?: Visions of Climate Futurism.” Dr Johnson explained that she is often portrayed as optimistic because of her joyful attitude. “But you can be happy and not assume that everything will be okay in the end , ” she said. “And I guess that’s how we keep going, right?”

Raised by parents who were civil rights activists, Dr. Johnson said she has long understood the importance of working practically toward a better future: “For me, whether it’s joy or sadness or optimism Or pessimism is not the point. It is my moral duty to be part of the solution.

Focusing on the outcomes you can control and the changes you as an individual can affect can allow you to be optimistic on a micro level while remaining pessimistic about the bigger picture of the future , Dr. Gelinker said. Maintaining this sense of personal effectiveness can be the key to performing a difficult task.

Dr. Hal Siden has worked for more than two decades in what some might imagine to be the least optimistic field: He is the medical director of Cain Place, the first children’s hospice in North America. But like Dr. Galenkar, he has seen optimism pay dividends in his work.

Doctor. Sidden considers himself a pragmatic optimist who remains mindful of the fact that he moves in the world with relative ease as a white, well-educated man – a privilege that can make it easy to believe that things are for the best. Will work He has seen tragedy countless times in the treatment of children who are seriously ill. And yet, he also sees reasons for hope.

In his time at Canuck Place, Dr. Siden said, the facility’s focus has expanded to include more symptom management for long-term illnesses, with palliative care — treatment that doesn’t cure young patients but Increases survival. He compared their philosophy to making taffy: “We’re growing life.” He draws strength from the small ways that the center is able to bring relief to people in dark, painful moments, and from the rare cases in which children defy the odds in the end. “I discharged a young man from our program at age 18 who I had met as a child who had come to us from the intensive care unit,” he said. “After six weeks there, he was coming to die.” But, with treatment, the boy shattered the most dire expectations. “And it’s not unusual,” Dr. Siden said.

Another source of hope is the progress Dr. Siden has seen over the course of his career. “I see diseases literally disappearing before my eyes every day,” he said.

Humira Kobusinghe, a Uganda-based climate activist and educator who runs Climate Justice Africa, said it is essential to resist pessimism and focus on small victories and achievable goals in order to relentlessly work towards solutions.

Uganda is one of many countries grappling with the everyday effects of the climate crisis. At the recent COP27 conference, Ms Kobusinghe was able to meet some of the country’s leaders and discuss the challenges facing her country. “Is this a big step or a big win?” He asked about the meeting. “No it isn’t, but it is a step forward,” she said. “And that’s exactly what we hold onto as optimists, and know that one step at a time, we’ll get there.”

Ms Kobusingye is part of a growing wave of climate activists, academics and TikTok influencers who are challenging “climate doomsday”. Rather than letting bleak forecasts lead to despair and inaction, Ms. Kobusingye cultivates optimism by focusing her attention on solutions.

“I am a child of action,” Ms Kobusingye said. “That’s what my mom always called me.” Growing up in a single-parent household alongside her brother, she learned from a young age that if she wanted a different life, she would have to work hard to make it a reality. “I come from the slums, I have seen nights where there was no food in our house,” she said. She became a self-styled optimist, she said, because “pessimism makes you give up easily.”

Speculative fiction writer Ndi Okorafor knows all too well how important it is not to succumb to doomsday. A naturally upbeat person, she calls herself an “irrational optimist” – aware that she is living in “problematic” times, but still leaning mostly toward hope.

Her optimism was cemented when, as a freshman in college, she was left unable to walk after having a relatively routine surgery to treat scoliosis. It was during this period of recovery that Ms. Okorafor first began to write creatively. Finally, thanks to intensive physical therapy, He regained sensation in his legs. “If I hadn’t honed my positivity for many years before this happened, I don’t know if I would have ever been able to walk again,” she said.

More than 20 years later, he continues to write positivism that has made him one of the best-known speculative fiction writers of his generation, writing stories often based on the African continent. She has worked to infuse her novels with optimism, even in a genre that defies the conventional wisdom that stories of doom and gloom are more marketable.

Ms. Okorafor said, “In a lot of my recent stories, I kind of veer away from dystopia,” noting that her 2010 dystopian novel, “Who Fears Death,” also had hope and joy on the page. “And I’m really obsessed with this idea of ​​the future being positive and utopian.”

“It is important to envision a positive future for a positive future,” he said. “If we just keep writing dystopias, that’s the road to the abyss.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or visit for a list of additional resources.

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