I’ve been thinking a lot about morale lately. I think the modern day interpretation is “vibes.” Am I right? It’s a fascinating concept if you really dig into it.
Morale is a psychological state of being, measured in terms of confidence and enthusiasm, especially when in challenging situations. I’ve been thinking a great deal about the morale of my own community lately, in addition to that of our world -- thinking about how we’re wired, what brings us up…what pulls us down. On one hand there’s a lot to be hopeful and encouraged about. Yet on the other hand, I can’t help but feel the fear and growing concern my friends and communities are feeling these days. But why is concern growing?
As you dig deeper, you can’t avoid the reality that bad news is literally being manufactured and distributed by the millisecond. News, media and digital channels globally are overflowing with stories of fear and trepidation -- all done in pursuit of profit.
To make matters worse, humans have devolved to a point where most of us lack a basic self discipline to turn it off. We’re addicted to bad news. Like sheep, our phones and apps regularly interrupt our lives to tell us what to think about, what to give our attention to, and what to worry about. And it seeps into our world like a virus...
I recently deleted my NextDoor app because it wanted me to believe my legitimately quiet neighborhood is overrun with burglars, drag racing and property crime. Other apps and sites I’ve deleted or blocked on my iPhone include Instagram, Facebook, NY Times and CNN. Their sole purpose is to capture my attention and hold it. I’m sorry, but our time and attention is much too valuable to be held hostage by these tech and news companies, wielding fear combined with hits of dopamine to stimulate our worried little caveman brains. And remember, they’re distracting us, controlling our attention and feeding us fear for profit.
Along these lines, Rolling Stone published a feature at the peak of the 2016 presidential campaign, statistically proving this is the safest time in human history, yet humans have never been so consumed with fear. In fact, there’s a well known philosophy driving the news industry: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Take a moment to think about it: Has there ever been a point in time when people you know have been so guarded, so cynical, so skeptical and so critical of practically everything they encounter? From everyday things like coffee and pizza, to obvious things like the weather and politics -- we scrutinize everything, even our Uber rides. We’ve become well-trained critics, ready to give everything a one-to-five star rating. But I digress...
Amidst this current condition of the world, I’m searching for the anti-venom, something to curb the fear and maybe help lift the vibe — and think I found it. It’s called optimism.
Consider this: Optimism is one of the greatest, most powerful internal forces available to humankind. It’s the catalyst, not only for changing the world, but for actually propelling us forward toward a better future. It’s the anti-venom for low morale, fear and negativity. Whether we’re talking about individuals, teams of people, communities or anything -- optimism is the singular most powerful driving force behind growing, improving, innovating and achieving success. Even more exciting — optimism is scientifically proven to be contagious. And it’s available to everyone. Just sit for a moment and imagine the possibilities.
Optimism: one of the greatest, most powerful internal forces available to humankind. It’s the catalyst, not only for changing the world, but for actually propelling us forward toward a better future. It’s the anti-venom for low morale, fear and negativity.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winner and author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” explains, “Optimists play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the leaders — not average people.”
Before we get too far, let’s first address a couple concerns of my fellow cynics and skeptics. One impediment is binary thinking: optimism vs. pessimism. The other is found among the “extremes of optimism” and how too much of it can be dangerous. Let’s address both of these now.
First, the binary trap: you’re either an optimist or a pessimist, right? I’ve had plenty of these conversations, where optimism and pessimism are compared and contrasted and batted about for a bit. Then at some point, someone in the room offers the conversational trump card, “I’m a realist” -- as if they’re breaking the binary dichotomy with their proclamation.
This notion is reinforced among popular psychology, as I’ve found several writings suggesting “reality” is the safe place in between optimism and pessimism. Some psychologists have even come up with something called “optimistic realism,” which anchors one to reality, with a slight bend toward hope. As relatable as this may sound, I’ve found no evidence or real life stories to support it. It’s as if psychology doesn’t know what to do with a concept as broad as optimism— so they designed an idea that feels a bit safer. I can almost hear someone saying, “Optimism? Let’s not get carried away.”
The truth is, as amazing as psychology can be, I’m not sure it’s good for anyone to alter or water down a force as paramount as optimism. Some things are best left alone, as big and expansive as they may be.
Now let’s talk about extremes. Many things in life can be taken to extremes and optimism is no exception. Clearly there can be downfalls in taking optimism too far. At its worst, extreme optimism leads to delusion and poor risk perception. Some call it blind optimism. At some point it could even lead to narcissism or the realm of mental illness.
Look no further than the newly infamous Billy McFarland and his Fyre Festival — assuming he’s not just purely committing fraud from the very beginning. History is full of stories of extreme optimism, some good and some bad. Henry the Eighth. Napoleon Bonaparte. Amelia Earhart. Winston Churchill. Martin Luther King Jr.. Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. Jay Z. Elon Musk. Alex Honnold. Amy Purdy. You gotta know Amy Purdy!
So if we can agree that most things, including optimism, have extremes that can be good and bad — I can make the same argument for realists. Those who are extreme, over committed to reality will miss opportunities to grow, learn, and dream. If you’re always cemented in reality, how can you dream about tomorrow, innovate and drive toward a better future? Now don’t get me wrong — I’m all for being present and in the moment. But without a future mindset, without dreams, I wonder if one might be nothing more than a rock, stuck in the land of status quo — one that never moves, never changes, never grows.
Okay, let’s define optimism. In sifting through hundreds of interpretations and definitions, I think Helen Keller put it best. “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” She nailed it.
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” - Helen Keller
In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela explained, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
In forthcoming parts of this essay, I will present empirical evidence, with real life examples to support the thesis. I will present the science behind optimism, the wild contagiousness of it, and a method for how to plan, introduce and manifest optimism among people, teams, and communities.
Until then, I’ll leave you with a timeless essay by Booker T. Washington, written for a talk he gave to the Tuskegee Institute on January 13, 1907, titled “Two Sides of Life.” As you read it, consider reflecting on people you know, maybe people you work with and experiences you’ve had. Reflect on Washington’s ideas from 1907 and see how they hold up for you today.