A case for optimism

Why small doses of good go a long way
March 20, 2018

In their manifesto Engineering Happiness, economists Baucells and Sarin outline ‘the fundamental equation of happiness’:

This gives formulaic legitimacy to the idea that great expectations mean gross disappointment. Nietzsche put his own cheery spin on it: hope is the worst of evils because it protracts torment.

But this is only true of false hope. Any sensory human must accept bitter truths: there will always be suffering, humans are flawed, and there is rarely such thing as a simple solution. Optimists simply refrain from translating these into “humans are garbage and trying is pointless”. Pessimists bear very heavily on what are really quite mundane facts. It remains true that you – that anyone – can help one person and change the whole world for them.

The more I witness global bureaucracy at work, the more I doubt change will come in the form of grand, sweeping solutions from governments or armies or international courts. Change will come from the small acts of individual compassion that spread tolerance and understanding between cultures. I am often challenged to explain how my very localised refugee work will “fix” the “problem” (which I assume refers to displacement). That’s entirely not the point. If I sought to solve that I’d have burnt out long ago. But I can fill bellies and I can make people smile and that is better than nothing.

I see pessimism as a gateway drug to defeatism, the sense that if you can’t change the world’s problems, you may as well lean into them. As Winston Churchill put it, “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty,” and whatever our differences, I’ll back him on that. So without further ado, here are three good reasons to keep your chin up and your head down (riddle me that).

1. Things get better with time

A pessimist historian sees the past as cyclical and humans as incapable of learning. But if you cryonically revived your Arthurian ancestor they would totally freak out at the state of the world today. It has changed beyond recognition. And by many quantitative measures, it has changed for the better.

The Bible tells us “there will always be poor people,” but among experts, this attitude is slowly being abandoned to the biblical era. There will always be relative poverty, but absolute poverty – the kind that puts human lives biologically at risk due to lack of food or shelter or medicine – is increasingly seen as a technical problem amenable to agronomic, economic, medical and sociological intervention. In more countries than ever before, state-sponsored social security, worldwide relief efforts, and a plethora of independent NGOs have woven a safety survival net. Many people are in greater danger of dying from obesity than starvation, and every year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the world.

Seas will flood, viruses will spread, cars will crash (even if they are programmed to only kill the driver), and hearts will break. Some things are out of our control. But the suffering caused by deliberate human selfishness is always in our power to fight. Burke famously stated that “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. It sounds awfully moralising, but it’s really not that damning. He is simply saying we must not do nothing at all.

2. Small people can do big things

Look upon the world’s vast problems from your teeny tiny size-four-and-a-half shoes, and the optimistic voice inside you squeaks and disappears. But ordinary individuals do extraordinary things every single day. Kwame Nkrumah was born to a poor and illiterate family in rural Nzema, but by seizing every opportunity for education that came his way, he developed a philosophy of socialist pan-Africanism and led the continent’s first declaration of independence from European imperialism. A veteran called John Pemberton accidentally made Coca-Cola while trying to cure his morphine addiction. He may or may not be a moral paragon, but there’s no denying he changed the world. His legacy is 3.1% of every beverage globally consumed. If you tried one a day, it would take you nine years to sample every one of Coca-Cola’s products. His economy is larger than Costa Rica’s.

For those of us living in the twenty-first century, extraordinariness is easier than ever. Here’s why. Once upon a time a medieval blacksmith called Johannes Gutenberg was busy doing whatever blacksmiths do when he decided to invent the European printing press (I’m abridging). Hereby, he single-handedly enabled centuries of religious, political and intellectual revolutions from the Reformation through the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ to the knowledge-based economy of the modern world (again, abridging). Jump forwards to 1989, and Tim Berners-Lee is tapping out three technologies— HTML, URL, and HTTP.  His WorldWide Web has atomised power, spewing exponential grassroots movements from BlackLivesMatter to MeToo, immortalising little Alan Kurdi’s final photo and coordinating democratic revolutions across the globe.

Your broadband provider does not hand you a megaphone to the world, because when everyone has a voice, the racket is deafening. This blog is one drip in an ocean of blogs that 3 billion users will collectively never find the time to read. And more menacingly, while the internet split the locus of power, it simultaneously made possible the most extreme centralisation of power history has ever seen: the digital surveillance state. But power has never been so indiscriminately accessible, and voices that have long been silenced are finally echoing far and wide.

For every single name we know, there are hundreds of thousands doing amazing things anonymously. We talk disproportionately about terrible people or people who play for applause. In the humanitarian sector I’ve met a handful of people who are not and will never be famous, but the good they have done needs no acclaim to be validated.

3. Kindness is contagious

When I was 20, I moved abroad. I was sad to miss the English spring because for the first year ever I wouldn’t see a daffodil. My friend picked one, pressed it, and posted it 8000 miles to me. When I was 7, I dropped my gloves off a chairlift in minus-20 degrees, leaving me frozen from more than just fear on top of a very big mountain. My brother told me to put his gloves on (he was “sweltering”) and skied me down with raw red hands. When I was 22, he bought me a wooden carving from a homeless vendor, just to pay him his average weekly earnings. When I was on my last warning at school, a classmate took the blame for my graffiti. I used to waitress at the Wimbledon Tennis where the food waste is abominable: my co-workers smuggled out illegal bento boxes and distributed them to homeless people. My last housemate Megan sacrificed her bedroom so we could house a homeless girl for a week. Yesterday, my mum said that if I knew a refugee who made it to the UK and had nowhere to go, I could give him her address and she would open her door for a stranger.

A remarkable thing about humans is that happiness multiplies as we divide it with others. Doing good makes us feel good. Joey Tribbiani would say this simply proves that selflessness doesn’t exist. This is the ultimate intellectual indulgence. Feeling good about doing good is the definition of empathy. If that makes good deeds selfish, who cares? It also makes kindness contagious, and far bigger than a single, selfless act.

100 years ago, a stockbroker wrote a novel called Friday the Thirteenth. Now every time that date comes around, the US economy loses $900 million. This is what we call ‘the butterfly effect’. Kindness, like superstition, has a butterfly effect. It ripples through a social network reaching far further than the eye can see. One morning in December 2012, at a drive-through in Manitoba, a customer paid for a stranger’s order. That stranger then paid for the following car, and so on and so forth for the next 226 customers over a three-hour sequence of spontaneous generosity. Social psychologists have verified this phenomenon, which was popularised in Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel, Pay It Forward (later silver-screened with Kevin Spacey).

So don’t underestimate the reach you have in a single act of kindness (and don’t be the one to break the chain)! It doesn’t take a rocket IQ or a billion-fund backing to make a difference. Little things can be unforgettable. Live by your values, surround yourself with wonderful people, don’t be part of something that makes you sick… It’s not about glorious heroism or grand, sweeping solutions. It’s about the flit of a butterfly.


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