View Discussion: Last to First | First to Last

Summary: Our forum members agreed that meaning and purpose are central to an optimistic outlook. Challenges can promote a more purposeful life, while affluence and privilege may encourage complacency, or as Martin Marty quoted, a "leanness of the soul." Gregg Easterbrook wrote of the importance of recovering a sense of purpose as a society "since if you believe life has meaning, then you must reach out to help others."

The discussion also included a polite dismissal of the word optimism. Martin Marty recommended hope in place of optimism's "illusion and delusion" while Bill Damon added that hope provides "meaning in life, confidence and a sense of purpose." Others countered that optimism's unencumbered drive is essential for bold action in the face of setbacks and obstacles.

Pessimism stayed on the sidelines, shunned as the unfortunate cousin of cynicism and defeat, but one NewTalk reader, M. Remaley, reminded us that excessive optimism can lead us into war and other folly, and that pessimism may merely be a scorned synonym for "critical thinking."

Putting semantics aside, how can we restore Americans' sense of optimism? Our panel envisioned nurturing it with volunteerism, national service, community building, charter schools, social entrepreneurship and "cultures of hope."

We invite NewTalk readers to offer their ideas for policies that support empowered thinking because, as Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi suggested, "we must create our own grounds for optimism."

Jean Johnson Executive Vice President Public Agenda
Opening Statement

Posted June 11, 2008, 9:00am

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?

NOTE: Jean will be moderating Wednesday’s session. Ruth Wooden will be joining as moderator on Thursday.

Martin E. Marty Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus University of Chicago

Posted June 11, 2008, 9:31am

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 Senior Editor The New Republic

Posted June 11, 2008, 10:20am

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.

Kelly Ward Director of America Forward New Profit Inc.

Posted June 11, 2008, 11:04am

Kelly Ward: 

There is no question that our country is facing exceptional challenges and that, on many fronts, we have been headed in the wrong direction. The irony is that we don't seem to have a long-term sense of pessimism about the future of our country. There are signs of optimism—and hope—all around us. Voters are turning out in record numbers. The rate of volunteerism is the highest it's ever been, especially among young people. The majority of Americans think the economy is in the tank, but the majority of Americans also think it will get better within 1-2 years. People are participating in their democracy, building communities, and doing their part to make a difference where they can. They don't seem to be responding to these tough times by shying away and admitting defeat. I think these tough times, and the difficult challenges facing our nation, are giving people a sense of purpose, and thanks to this purpose they are taking action. Not only is their action born out of a sense of optimism and hope for the future, but it's also something for all of us to be optimistic about.

Jean Johnson Executive Vice President Public Agenda
Moderator

Posted June 11, 2008, 11:57am

Jean Johnson: 

I would like to raise a question if I could at this time.

We've had some discussion about the nature of optimism or hope and a little back and forth on the degree to which Americans are more of less hopeful or optimistic than in the past. We've also had some discussion about whether the facts on the ground warrant optimism or something less than that. Are people more dissatisfied with the state of the country than is actually warranted?

My question is whether current public attitudes (negativity about the direction of the country, about whether their children will be better off financially) really matter? Is this a subject that is interesting to talk about and observe, or is there some action or response leaders should be making? Should leaders in politics, business, education, etc. be doing something differently given the public's current view, or would their time be better spent tackling the problems and letting public opinion catch up later.

William Damon Professor of Education Stanford University

Posted June 11, 2008, 1:50pm

William Damon: 

Professor Marty's distinction between optimism and hope is essential. Václav Havel made the distinction in this way: "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

Hope provides meaning in life, confidence, a sense of purpose, and the will to go on. If Americans have lost hope, this is far more serious than if our optimism has decreased. We don't need to believe that we have a charmed existence, but we do need to believe that there are things that we should contribute to the world—noble and moral things that we stand for as a nation.

There are disturbing signs that many Americans are failing to find reasons to be hopeful about this country. Particularly disturbing is that young people are expressing feeling of hopelessness—one in four, in the research that I report in The Path to Purpose. The belief that it means anything positive to be an American citizen, or that it is possible to make a difference through acts of civic participation, is rare among young people in our country today. Youth traditionally is a time of hope (and optimism as well!), so we should be very concerned about what this implies for the future of our society.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi C.S. and D.J. Davidson Professor of Psychology and Management Claremont Graduate University

Posted June 11, 2008, 2:50pm

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: 

When I came to the US in my early twenties, in 1956, I expected to find a new life in a country that had been spared the agonies chronic to the rest of the world—a country that, as I had learned in Europe from friends and from the media, was inhabited by a shallow populace steeped in naive optimism.

My first impressions after arriving in the States confirmed this expectation. If one brought up in conversation any doubts about politics, or the sustainability of the American lifestyle, people would shrug and point out that the Constitution protected the nation from doing anything wrong, and that after weathering the Great Depression all precautions were in place to avoid future economic disasters. This almost unanimous sense of smug optimism was stunning to anyone with any sense of history (which, as one also learned, was bunk).

Half a century later, what is stunning is the about-face that so many Americans have made. While optimism seems to still be the norm among the fundamentalist, isolationist sections of the country, the majority has taken to blame the USA for faults that while real, are unfortunately all too human. For callowness notwithstanding, the American experiment has contributed a sense of hope and an intimation of promise that have been lacking on the world stage, and that would be enormously sad to lose in the face of what are inevitable setbacks, or "reality checks."

Returning to the naive optimism of the post-WWII era, even if possible, would constitute denial. The question is, do we have the imagination to recognize what made this country great, and the resolve to translate that vision into policies that will give that vision new life?

Martin E. Marty Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus University of Chicago

Posted June 11, 2008, 4:25pm

Martin E. Marty: 

The fissure (not a gulf) between two sets of us has to do with why, if things are going bad but not terribly bad, so many Americans are whiny and sullen and pessimistic (but not hopeless). Might a line of distinction run something like this: for years Americans have been shown to be "optimistic" about their personal circumstances and "pessimistic" over the longer range. Now as unemployment grows, inflation threatens, recession is here, the pointless war drags on and will drag on, climate change is getting to be recognized all around, and collegians are not finding employment the way they'd been told they would, they are having to feel the effect close to home. That is dispiriting, of course. I do agree with colleagues on this NewTalk post, however, that one glance around—Sudan? China? Zimbabwe? etc., we have no reason to burrow into holes of pessimism. There are some steps to be taken, things to be done—even if we do them all right, we will not rule the world, as we were taught to think we would—as recently as four years ago.

Jean Johnson Executive Vice President Public Agenda
Moderator

Posted June 11, 2008, 4:44pm

Jean Johnson: 

You've brought up some fascinating distinctions and shadings in the last few comments. I'd like to throw in an example for our recent work. Not long ago, Public Agenda conducted focus groups with typical citizens asking about the role of higher education in developing citizenship and encouraging civic engagement. Most people agreed that being a responsible citizen and being willing to be a part of a community (to "give back" was a phrase many people used) were important. Nearly all wanted young people to learn these things. But most also felt that the economy is so tough, that finding your place in life is so taxing and so fraught with difficulty, that you just can't spend time on this in college. College is for getting the skills you need for a job, and if you don't get them, you're toast.

It wasn't that most of the participants were actually pessimistic about their own economic future. Most didn't dismiss the need for a sense of possibility and social purpose—many seemed to long for this. They just thought that, given the tough slog young people face today, there's not enough time for it. They had a sense that there had to be some sort of educational triage, and social purpose doesn't make it.

So are we too busy to exercise "the imagination to recognize what made this country great," as Mihaly puts it? Too busy "to believe that there are things that we should contribute to the world—noble and moral things that we stand for as a nation," as William Damon says?

Iris Chen President and CEO “I Have A Dream” Foundation

Posted June 11, 2008, 5:15pm

Iris Chen: 

Like Gregg, I believe in the power of optimism—even if the ‘conviction that something will turn out well’ seems naïve or disconnected from reality. We make the greatest strides both personally and collectively when we embrace big visions that are not weighed down by current reality. I see this in the lives of the students I work with every day, students living in the nation’s most blighted communities who have a 1-in-2 chance of graduating from high school and a 1-in-10 chance of achieving higher education. Those students who make it to college are typically those who can imagine a different future for themselves, one that seems out of reach in light of the overwhelming odds stacked against them. They and those around them assume it can be done, free themselves of doubt, and focus all their energies on making it happen. Time and time again, I have seen the magic that optimism creates. I don’t think hope is enough to accomplish great things.

This is not to suggest that there is no role for realism. I believe that we achieve the greatest success when we take a half-full approach to what’s possible, then a half-empty approach to where we currently stand. This awareness of the gap between ideals and reality is what generates the urgency , the will , and the persistence to effect change when it’s hardest to do so.

In public education where I work, I feel great optimism for our future. My optimism comes from seeing this tension at work. In recent years, a new generation of education leaders have emerged who are raising the bar for what’s possible in our nation’s most under-resourced schools, even as there is a growing awareness of where our schools currently stand (one of the positive byproducts of NCLB). This gap is inspiring young people all over the nation to join the movement for educational equity, from Teach For America’s 20,000+ applications this year, to all the MBAs, lawyers, and other professionals  who are leaving behind lucrative careers to add their talents to public education. I have never seen anything like this in the nearly 20 years I’ve been working in this sector.

Arthur C. Brooks President American Enterprise Institute

Posted June 11, 2008, 6:03pm

Arthur C. Brooks: 

Optimism and pessimism are not evenly distributed throughout the population. In fact, they follow one's worldview in some important ways. For example, I've found in my own research that regardless of external circumstances, certain people simply tend to believe statements like, "hard work and perseverance can overcome disadvantage," while other people are more strongly oriented toward the idea that luck and circumstances are most important. Those who feel they have control over their lives (the "hard work" camp), even if they are below-average economically, tend to be much more upbeat than others. Some may say they are deluded, but if happiness and optimism are the goal, they are definitely coming out ahead.

William Damon Professor of Education Stanford University

Posted June 11, 2008, 6:12pm

William Damon: 

I recognize the belief that Jean Johnson is referring to—the odd but pervasive notion that people these days are so busy with the necessities of just getting by that they don't have time to consider the bigger questions of what they want to accomplish and why. But this belief flies in the face of everything we know about human productivity. People who are committed to a larger purpose are highly motivated. They don't complain about being too busy, nor do they get "stressed out" when they encounter new difficulties.

Studies of children raised in economic times far tougher than ours (see Elder's Children of the Great Depression) indicate that young people felt a need to contribute to their families and were determined to work their way out of deprivation. They were hopeful about the future during the hard times, and they became patriotic citizens when the war broke out. If young people today are not linking their present efforts to any larger purpose, this must be chalked up as a failure of an educational system that has become so preoccupied by bureaucratic mandates such as test-taking that it fails to inspire true motivation in our students. Work and citizenship should not be seen as either-or alternatives: they need to go hand-in-hand if both the individual and the society are to thrive.

Iris Chen President and CEO “I Have A Dream” Foundation

Posted June 11, 2008, 6:16pm

Iris Chen: 

I think we have to encourage young people and all our citizens to view their lives in a different way. If we can view our lives as something not to spend for ourselves, but to deploy to a greater purpose, the concerns about jobs and resume-building and all the other things that keep us busy begin to fall away.

I have found that most people will step up and apply their lives to a larger purpose when given the opportunity. What stops many is the concern that their talents won’t be put to good use. As the education and nonprofit sectors change and become more disciplined and results-oriented, we are attracting greater talent to the field.  

Similarly, when people are presented with an inspiring vision of how things could be, they often step up to be part of it. As Obama noted during his nomination speech, the American people “chose to listen not to your doubts or your fears, but to your greatest hopes and highest aspirations.”

I recognize that I am sounding hopelessly naïve, and that this approach to life is a luxury that might be easier for us in America than for people in other parts of the world, where putting food on the table is a daily challenge.

DAY TWO OF THE DISCUSSION

Terrie M. Williams President The Terrie Williams Agency

Posted June 12, 2008, 9:45am

Terrie M. Williams: 

As Professor Csikszentmihalyi wrote, "The question is, do we have the imagination to recognize what made this country great, and the resolve to translate that vision into policies that will give that vision new life?"

Whether or not people have the tenacity of spirit to make sacrifices of their current freedoms is one issue. The wave of optimism Americans long for is very real, and we only need look at the presidential campaign as people reach out desperately for "Change."

Something in the way we live now needs an overhaul. But the question is whether we're willing to hear truth telling about our current lifestyle. Perhaps no one is willing to say it, but the optimism that was our parents' and grandparents' was based in spiritual belief that it's right to do right and it's wrong to do wrong. How about we take a hard look at the way we treat one another?

There is little compassion for the human condition—many are in unimaginable pain, and as long as there are people who live in despair and have no resources or opportunities—then where are we? Healing starts with us, it's simple.

I'd like to share the poem entitled, "The Invitation," by Oriah. It is where and how I enter the world…talk about giving us a reason to be optimistic.

Gregg Easterbrook Senior Editor The New Republic

Posted June 12, 2008, 10:48am

Gregg Easterbrook: 

Terrie Williams has hit on a key point – one reason optimism declines is the modern fad for believing life lacks meaning. If you think your own existence represents no more than a random accident of amino acids and molecular heat exchange, why struggle against a purposeless world? 

With each passing year, more Americans attend college. This is a great trend. But what do they teach you at college? That your life is meaningless.

Recovery of the senses of meaning and purpose are very much in our interest, since if you believe life has meaning, then you must reach out to help others. And while many people derive the sense of purpose from faith, you don't need to be religious to embrace meaning: life can be deeply meaningful even if our origin is wholly natural.

Ruth Wooden President Public Agenda
MODERATOR

Posted June 12, 2008, 11:48am

Ruth Wooden: 

Good morning. I'll be moderating today’s dialogue. The discussion so far has thoughtfully addressed the nature of optimism, and the exchange between Terrie and Gregg highlights its deeply personal roots.

Now, I'd like to turn the discussion to the role of optimism/ hope in the public domain. Despite the current public "wrong track" view of the country, it seems that there may be a "set point" of optimism; a "steady" attitudinal state about America. As Philip Howard's public comment noted, this deviation relates to the degree to which people feel a sense of control over making a difference. As Gregg suggested, the more people sense that they can't control their lives, the more self-fulfilling that pessimism becomes, both for the individual and for society.

If that is the case, just how deep is that pessimistic view today? Or is there a reservoir of optimism just below the surface that can be tapped and engaged? As Martin Marty wrote: "We have no reason to burrow into holes of pessimism. There are some steps to be taken, things to be done." What are some of those things? What is the role of leadership here; a new President, a new Congress? Can they inspire us to face up realistically to tough choices?

William Damon Professor of Education Stanford University

Posted June 12, 2008, 11:52am

William Damon: 

Gregg Easterbrook has hit the nail on the head. Hope cannot exist without purpose and meaning. It's important to note, however, that not all Americans have bought into the line that life lacks meaning. In our study The Path to Purpose, we found over 20% of young Americans in our sample (ages 12-26) have a clear sense of purpose. They have staked out a direction in life that they find meaningful, and optimism is one of the main personal characteristics that they exhibit. About 55% of our sample may be searching for purpose, although they don't seem to be getting the guidance they need from their schools or other cultural settings. The remaining 25% don't seem to find much of anything meaningful, and a lot of them are drifting aimlessly. So not all young Americans are on the same page. Some are far more hopeful than others.

Martin E. Marty Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus University of Chicago

Posted June 12, 2008, 12:27pm

Martin E. Marty: 

Though emeritus, I was invited from a Divinity and Humanities faculty, so sooner or later I should say something theological and humanistic. Theologically, to account for citizens being "down" when there are at least some reasons to look up and move ahead. let's snatch a line in old translations of Psalm 106:15 It sings and tells of a time when the children of Israel were in the wilderness where they "murmured" or, in Yiddish, they "kvetched." Then they asked God for richer fare, and God provided it. So? This is an at the same time delicious and terrifying phrase: So "God gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul."

You do not need to be a divine, to think theologically, or even a believer to get the idea. The humanistic reference is to Emile Durkheim and the modern sociologists, who studied (especially young) people in well-off societies, most notably Sweden. He wondered why well off people who had a future committed suicide. He also perceived "anomie," "rulelessness"—we see it among the suburban young who are aimless, negative, and sometimes despairing. We "NewTalkers" seem to agree that, in respect to material provisions, at least until recently we Americans got a pretty good deal, our "requests" and expectations were met. But when we do not connect the goodies with any larger framework or purpose, we can be victims of "leanness" of soul or "rulelessness" in society.

The Psalmist was urging godly people to be godly, to find meaning and purpose. Durkheim was implying that if people in rich societies could find a clear pattern for life, they would not commit suicide (which many Americans are doing "mentally" right now), and they would recognize the norms and rules which, if followed, would promote the common good and be recognized by more people than evidently now do, we may not need optimism. We would get a plan, a program—and could then temper our realism with hope—and be cured of "leanness in the soul.”

Jean Johnson Executive Vice President Public Agenda

Posted June 12, 2008, 12:50pm

Jean Johnson: 

I guess what concerns me is that there may be something in the culture, in our education system, in the media, in our leadership that seems to wring the meaning out of life rather than deepen it. In our surveys and focus groups, nearly all parents and students see going to college and getting a degree as "the purpose." Most—not all certainly—are fairly optimistic and hopeful about that one goal. But far fewer seem to focus on college as an opportunity to learn more about humankind, about the Earth, even about our own country—where it's been and where it's going. Most of the focus is on getting the skill set and piece of paper that puts you on "the right track." Sometimes I wonder about the emphasis our culture puts on accumulating more and more material goods, on being famous, on getting on TV, on having the "right" clothes, and so on. Hope and optimism are surely laudable, but are they enough if they are focused only on a very shallow set of goals?

Terrie M. Williams President The Terrie Williams Agency

Posted June 12, 2008, 2:12pm

Terrie M. Williams: 

What I think so many fail to realize is that all that really matters is a sound mind and spirit. There is nothing without mental and emotional health. We optimistically promote excellence and success by any means, and then we produce a nation of individuals who are chasing the "dream" and can't cope. And because everyone wears their game face, the mask, we never really know how folks are doing until they commit suicide (or spiritual suicide by not following their hearts) or disintegrate right before our eyes. And we say: "But they had everything." Everything except mental and emotional health—along with a measure of optimism.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi C.S. and D.J. Davidson Professor of Psychology and Management Claremont Graduate University

Posted June 12, 2008, 2:57pm

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: 

We have also found in some of our studies that the "leanness of the soul" that Marty mentions is quite widespread among U.S. teenagers, and it is more pronounced among the well-to-do than among those who are less advantaged. I am also inclined to believe with Bill Damon that the central problem might be lack of purpose (or healthy purpose) rather than the lack of optimism. What made the U.S. optimistic in the past was that most people believed they were on the right track towards a prosperous, comfortable life, and that would make them happy. As it is becoming clearer that wealth and comfort don't guarantee happiness, people are looking for alternative directions. Some find it in religion, some in rebellion, many in apathy.

So what purpose is worthy of the human race at the beginnings of the new millennium? When we agree on an answer, hope and optimism will follow.

Some promising signs: A liberal minority candidate for President; the increase in volunteerism mentioned by Chen and Johnson . . . on the other hand, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the infiltration of the market into all aspects of life, the mindless war that saps the economy and the idealism of our youth, undermine opportunities for optimism. In the end, we must create our own grounds for optimism, or entropy will destroy what our ancestors have built.

Ruth Wooden President Public Agenda
MODERATOR

Posted June 12, 2008, 3:08pm

Ruth Wooden: 

This discussion has taken a very interesting turn to how purpose and meaning inform an individual's sense of optimism. I wrote earlier that I wanted to steer the discussion towards the public domain and the role of optimism as a general characteristic of the American people. I'd still like to go there and see what kinds of opportunities the participants think exist for leadership to help invest this view. But it is intriguing to try to merge these two strands of thought. Yesterday Tom Friedman wrote in his New York Times column about how he was hearing abroad that people still hunger for the "idea of America"—open, optimistic and radically different from their own countries and are encouraged that it might be re-emerging. He senses that that is one of the "meanings" of the idea of America to the rest of the world. What other opportunities are there to restore meaning more generally to the "sense of the country?" What can our leadership provide in this effort?

Arthur C. Brooks President American Enterprise Institute

Posted June 12, 2008, 4:35pm

Arthur C. Brooks: 

The discussion about meaning, faith, and optimism is strongly backed up by evidence. For example, virtually every survey finds that people who take their spritual lives seriously are much happier and optimistic than those who do not. My own work finds that religious folks are about twice as likely as non-religious people to say on anonymous surveys that they are very happy about their lives (the actual religion doesn't matter all that much, by the way).

But here's an interesting wrinkle that some research has turned up on a concept related to optimism: fear of death. It turns out that senior citizens who say they have a faith but don't practice it are far more likely to fear their own deaths than either religious practitioners or people who have no religious beliefs.

Martin E. Marty Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus University of Chicago

Posted June 12, 2008, 4:55pm

Martin E. Marty: 

The question now is: how can society have and display and use hope (or optimism)?

Robert Frost in one of his poems invited us to a "one-man revolution," the only kind of revolution that is coming. Wouldn't we rather say that revolutions, turnings, for example from despair to hope start with one person, but if there are no connections with others, the flicker of hope's candle will die out, and who profits from the darkness that outlasts the light?

There are ways to connect. If a one-person revolution will not do, a mass-revolution, total change of all, will not happen. To make a change, we have to begin developing "cultures of hope," cultures which can interact and work symbiotically.

It's been tried—but not enough—and it works—but we have to see more. Examples: an inner-city school teacher inspires "at-risk" and ordinarily "hope-less" boys to master chess, or spelling, or sculpting. Another introduces lacrosse to a school of hopeless losers at basketball and inspires the young women she teaches to find a new niche where they can excel. It is hard for me to picture any reader of this exchange who cannot name a number of their teachers who introduced hope and built on it, providing skills, vision, and direction. That can happen in precincts, religious institutions, neighborhood action groups and more. The result may not be a "trickling up" into the highest zones of power, but it can move the effects of hope laterally and, again, symbiotically. "Hope speaketh unto hope," and the voice of pessimism is muffled.

Ruth Wooden President Public Agenda
MODERATOR

Posted June 12, 2008, 5:08pm

Ruth Wooden: 

The evidence about lack of purpose and "leanness of the soul" (especially with younger people) suggests that these qualities are reinforced by so many social institutions that it feels almost as if they are contagious. What are the opportunities - in society and culture and politics - to attack the virus if you will? Is the spirit of purpose something promoted privately by families? What's the role of education in helping to foster these qualities among young people? Why do some people demonstrate optimism in the face of circumstances that would defeat many, while others turn hopeless at relatively minor setbacks? I was particularly taken with something Iris Chen said that struck me as a useful way to think about how to foster a solid balance between optimism and realism—"I believe that we achieve the greatest success when we take a half-full approach to what's possible, than a half-empty approach to where we currently stand."

As our discussion winds down I'm still looking for ideas about approaches that go beyond fostering individdual purpose and instead build purposeful optimism and hope into the larger community.

Iris Chen President and CEO “I Have A Dream” Foundation

Posted June 12, 2008, 5:17pm

Iris Chen: 

Regarding Arthur’s earlier point, faith would seem to bring a sense of purpose in people’s lives, and that might explain the greater happiness and optimism they report. I don’t know if it needs to be religion or spirituality per se. Someone who finds another overarching purpose in their lives might find the same happiness and optimism.

I think of Michael J. Fox. He considers himself lucky because Parkinson’s struck him when he had already accumulated enough celebrity and status to do something about it. He is now on a mission to eradicate Parkinson’s disease and spends most of his time doing that. He has a sense of purpose which has brought out the very best in him. I don’t know if he’s religious or not, but that doesn’t seem to have entered into it.

Kelly Ward Director of America Forward New Profit Inc.

Posted June 12, 2008, 5:27pm

Kelly Ward: 

Ironically, our discussion about how we can restore Americans' sense of optimism has taken a noticeably pessimistic and skeptical tone overall.  And as the youngest person involved in this dialogue (I think), I find myself perplexed by this, but hopeful that our discussion is not indicative of how people feel overall.  

I do think there is a sense of optimism in this country.  And hope.  And purpose.  I am inspired by my generation.  I am inspired by the amazing social entrepreneurs of all ages who are working every day to identify new, innovative solutions to solve the tough issues we've talked so much about over the past 2 days.  I am inspired by the impact we can have on each other when we take action and find purpose in our shared communities.  I am inspired by Barack Obama and his call on this country to believe in hope—and to take action in making our country as great as we know it can be.  I am hopeful that our country is going to respond to this call, as we have done in the past.  

Perhaps it is because I am one of the 20% of young people Bill Damon talked about who has found my purpose.  Or perhaps it is because, as John deBary wrote in the reader comments section of this discussion, it's a "generational thing."  But either way, I find myself agreeing with what Tom Friedman said in the article Ruth posted that "America is the country of the future.  It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations."  Perhaps I am, like Iris said, hopelessly naive, but I feel optimistic that this statement is indeed true, and that gives me hope for the future.

Jean Johnson Executive Vice President Public Agenda

Posted June 12, 2008, 5:51pm

Jean Johnson: 

Regarding Ruth's question about ways to rebuild optimism and a sense of purpose—I wonder if there's some variation on national service that might be important. There's a part of me that thinks that every college graduate should have spent at least a month in a very poor country or perhaps caring for older people in nursing homes or talking with people in hospices or seriously injured vets. Most of us have no idea what we really have and how fortunate we are—we get all wrapped up in what we don't have and what new toys we want.

Actually, we probably all need experiences that center us and help us remember our good fortune and what we owe other human beings because of that good fortune, but the national service idea might be a practical beginning. Do experiences like these make us more optimistic? I am not sure, but they might give us a little perspective and make us a little less cranky.

Iris Chen President and CEO “I Have A Dream” Foundation

Posted June 12, 2008, 6:07pm

Iris Chen: 

As Marty pointed out, there are many examples of people overcoming enormous obstacles to accomplish great things. Seeing these examples create optimism and hope. That is why I and so many others are still working in education despite the challenges. It’s hard to walk away when you have seen what’s possible.

Unfortunately, it is easy to attribute these successes to special circumstances that can’t be replicated. To counter this, we need to replicate success and share it broadly. KIPP, one of the nation’s highest-performing charter school networks, is a good example. While they achieve spectacular results with individual schools, there are questions around whether they take the ‘best’ kids and schools, and therefore aren’t a realistic model of success. KIPP is now working to build 40 KIPP schools in Houston alone, so they can show what’s possible on a broad scale. If they can pull this off—and I’m hopeful they will—they will no doubt raise our collective sense of possibility.  This in turn will create a sense of urgency. This is a good thing, since nothing short of urgency will enable us to tackle our nation’s most pressing problems.

Ruth Wooden President Public Agenda
CLOSING STATEMENT

Posted June 12, 2008, 7:11pm

Ruth Wooden: 

We have come to the end of the discussion, and I want to thank all of you for your contributions. Jean Johnson and I have been pleased to moderate this dialogue and clearly the topic inspired an animated discussion. As Kelly stated, there is quite a divide in opinion among the group and it may, or may not, reflect differences by age. I suggested in an earlier posting that there might be a stream of optimism lying just below the surface of the current level of disquiet among the public at large. I have often been surprised by the speed with which the public mood changes. It may well be that our last post, quite full of optimism, will be reflected in public sentiment sooner than some of us might expect. 

This discussion will be archived on this site, and readers will still be able to submit their comments and carry on the discussion. We hope to see NewTalk readers continue with both philosophical and pragmatic suggestions to address, as Prof. Csikszentmihalyi wrote, the need to "create our own grounds for optimism."

Participating

Arthur C. Brooks American Enterprise Institute
Iris Chen “I Have A Dream” Foundation
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Claremont Graduate University
William Damon Stanford University
Gregg Easterbrook The New Republic
Jean Johnson Public Agenda
Martin E. Marty University of Chicago
Kelly Ward New Profit Inc.
Terrie M. Williams The Terrie Williams Agency
Ruth Wooden Public Agenda

RSS Feeds

Tools

Reader Comments

I do think there are some of us with a long-term sense of pessimism about the future of America. For example, I don't understand why there isn't a greater sense of urgency around climate change. In the past year alone, there have been extreme droughts and flooding, and we have already seen a record number of tornadoes in 2008. Climate change is arguably the most serious long-term threat facing the world—it is hard to have hope for the future when we are a country whose news outlets routinely give 24-hour coverage for weeks on end to celebrity scandals while we only have cursory attention paid to issues that will drastically change the way we live.

-- Alison Walsh

I'm not sure I agree with the premise of this discussion, that America is lacking in optimism and/or that increased pessimism is a problem. Undue optimism is what got us where we are in Iraq. Undue optimism is what got millions of Americans buying needless McMansions with huge loans they couldn't afford. Undue optimism is what allows politicians to sell the concept of reducing taxes leads to increased tax revenues. No, what America lacks is not optimism, but a reasonable amount of critical thinking. If the American exceptionalists call that pessimism, so be it.

-- Michael Remaley

Upcoming See All

  • Risk and Legal Fear in Schools
    With Lenore Skenazy, Frederick Hess, Megan Rosker, Walter Olson, and Nancy McDermott. Start date: June 5

Reader Comments (7)

Add Yours
1. June 11, 2008 10:31 AM

How do we distinguish between hope and delusion in a society that presents so many rich examples of both?

-- David Boorstin
2. June 11, 2008 12:41 PM

I do think there are some of us with a long-term sense of pessimism about the future of America. For example, I don't understand why there isn't a greater sense of urgency around climate change. In the past year alone, there have been extreme droughts and flooding, and we have already seen a record number of tornadoes in 2008. Climate change is arguably the most serious long-term threat facing the world—it is hard to have hope for the future when we are a country whose news outlets routinely give 24-hour coverage for weeks on end to celebrity scandals while we only have cursory attention paid to issues that will drastically change the way we live.

-- Alison Walsh
3. June 12, 2008 6:38 AM

A sense of hope comes only when people feel they can make a difference. If you feel like everything's out of your control, it's easy to revert to self-interest and cynicism. As Gregg Easterbrook notes, sooner or later this pessimism becomes self-fulfilling, both for the person and for the society.

Robert Bellah has written about a shift in the concept of freedom--from the freedom to do things to the freedom to be left alone. I'd be interested in the panelist's take on this. I dug up a quote from Bellah on this: "We are happiest when we are successfully meeting challenges at work, in our private lives, and in our community." Perhaps that last venue--meeting challenges in the community-- is being closed off, leading to decline of the sense of hope.

-- Philip Howard
4. June 12, 2008 11:09 AM

I'm not sure I agree with the premise of this discussion, that America is lacking in optimism and/or that increased pessimism is a problem. Undue optimism is what got us where we are in Iraq. Undue optimism is what got millions of Americans buying needless McMansions with huge loans they couldn't afford. Undue optimism is what allows politicians to sell the concept of reducing taxes leads to increased tax revenues. No, what America lacks is not optimism, but a reasonable amount of critical thinking. If the American exceptionalists call that pessimism, so be it.

-- Michael Remaley
5. June 12, 2008 11:24 AM

I would like to add to the wonderful insights with another angle. These honorable speakers have addressed American attitudes towards society in general: the economy, our education systems, our reputation in the world, etc. But I expect that most people would agree that even if these 'outer' realities are in disarray, a wellspring of life and happiness can still be tapped. This wellspring could be called, for lack of a better word, Love. The number one measure of worthwhile living is the quality of our personal relationships; relationships with the divine, with myself, my family, and friends. The gauge of our country's future isn't found in the media, but in the heart of families, in the traditions of responsible love passed on from parents to children. Love bestows power to face the challenges of life with your loved ones. Love has the power to free a mind from addiction, to help a teenager choose honor over glory, to lay down ones livelihood for the sake of another. Only in the context of relationships of love do justice, value, and destiny have meaning. Our maturity as a nation is measured by what is happening in our homes—the quality of our dialog and depth of our intimacy at home. The media, politicians, and institutions will never be the real measure. Healthy family is the model that we are attempting to extend into the outer world. Without love, our efforts to 'change' are lifeless. Also, without love, optimism and pessimism about 'the nation' are in the end, irrelevant. The more our public dialog can illuminate the spiritual needs of families and what kind of morality best guides them, the more fruitful our words will be for all.

-- Charles Bingham
6. June 12, 2008 3:39 PM

Perhaps there is a generational dimension to this issue. Might the cause of some pessimism in our culture be the result of the generational shift in values and the failure to recgonize these goals as valid? We all share a need for recognition, aknowledgement or understanding. Ms. Johnson eloquenlty lamented the “shallow” goals being focused on in today’s culture. Might these actually be the same goals as always, but dressed up in post-mtv generation clothing? I wonder if this lack of generational understanding is at play when Americans talk about cultural/political/moral decline and their lack of optimism for the future…

-- John deBary
7. August 20, 2008 5:22 AM

Americans are not optimistic because of the expansion of government. Real hourly wages are stagnant, while real hourly compensation continues to rise, the difference being made up by taxation and health care benefits. Americans will be more optimistic if they see greater economic growth. Health care should decoupled from our jobs by eliminating the health insurance tax break for employers. That way people can have a better feel for their total compensation. We should avoid raising Social Security and Medicare taxes. Simple things can be done like ending the destructive War on Drugs which drags large numbers of minorities into violent informal sector employment and away from education, two parent families, and legal entrepreneurism. And we could end the silly restraint of trade with Americans with Cuba. If we liberalized true immigration, and returned to the rules of the time of my Great Grandmother who needed to just show up and live here for a few years and then was granted citizenship, we could fill up all the unused housing stock and solve the popped housing bubble problem in a few months. All we need to do is believe in the benefits of freedom again.

-- mr econotarian