One of the most dangerous practices in politics is the cursory glance. Seven words crawl by while you watch a newscast. A headline is posted on the bottom right of your screen as you browse social media. A few words about this subject or that are overheard while you drink a coffee and stare out the window at a cafe. Immediately, whether you want to or not, you register the information and form an impression. Because of the tendency in the media and by the public to focus on the negative when it comes to politics, as if the sky were always just about to crash down squarely upon our heads, your perception is probably that we’re all in trouble and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Which means that we’re not just in trouble. We’re in big, big trouble.

Despite the threat posed by the negative-attitude approach to producing and consuming political news, we regularly rely on the practice. Our days are short and busy. We have buses to catch and commutes to make. We have e-mails to answer and goods to return to the shop. We have children to raise and mortgages to pay. So the 30-second news hit or the 600-word news story (which we scan) is how we get our information about politics and economics. But the habit, while accommodating of our over-scheduled hours, costs us far more than it saves us. While in the short run it allows us to get a quick hit of the news, all of those cursory glances add up. And since each is more likely to be negative than positive, in the long run they add up and contribute to a culture of negativity that is damaging to the health and well-being of our democracy and ourselves.

From this we get the “hell-in-a-handbasket” theory. You can find this take on the state of domestic and international affairs by listening in on any conversation on the bus or in your local coffee shop, or by reading just about any comment thread on any article published on the Internet. The account goes like this: “Things used to be great back in X” (where X is whichever decade or century the interlocutor happens to favour). “Now they’re a mess. And there’s nothing we can do about it because Y” (where Y is whatever force or actor or series/combination of the two that are found to be the prime offender or offenders). “You know what: the world is going straight to hell in a handbasket.”

Nevermind that such political millenarians often fail to produce anything even approximating actual evidence for their argument. Even when they do, it’s often truncated or poorly sampled or simply false. But those who see that the end is nigh—whether they’re politically left, right, or indifferent—can’t be ignored. They are parents, teachers, voters, influencers, politicians, writers, friends, and relatives. Their perspective travels. Their framing of the world shapes the world. If we could get them to be more optimistic, we might be able to start imagining ourselves out of “disaster.” What comes from it all: a deeply negative approach to politics.


Positivity to the rescue

The field of positive psychology has roots that stretch back to the early 20th century. But it became prominent only in the last twenty years or so once psychologist Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and University of Pennsylvania professor, took up the cause of improving our quality of life by focussing on personal development. Since the late-1990s, positive psychology has, to borrow a familiar word from the field itself, flourished.

Seligman and others who work in this field, including Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Howard Gardner, and the late Christopher Peterson, have published dozens of books and given countless public talks, including some for the ubiquitous TED-Talk series. To the casual observer, there’s an almost cult-like ethos attached to the movement. No surprise. Common words associated with positive psychology include “optimism,” “flourish,” and “flow.” In an era that has witnessed the proliferation of self-help books promising quick fixes to longstanding problems, no one would be blamed for being skeptical about a field of research called positive psychology. But the men and women who work in the field (such as the above-mentioned psychologists and others including Angela Duckworth, Paul Rozin, and Peter Schulman) have been trained by some of the best institutions of higher education in the world. Many are clinical psychologists. And the methods they use are respected and scientific.

Students of positive psychology are concerned with the study of what makes people happy and what makes life worth living. They concern themselves with understanding satisfaction and how humans can develop long-term fulfillment. This approach to the study of psychology isn’t about quick fixes or off-the-shelf self-help truisms. And while questions about whether positive psychology is for everyone are far from answered, one takeaway from the field deserves to be take more seriously in the context of contemporary politics: learned optimism.

Learned optimism is a concept and practice developed by Seligman. The idea, roughly, is that optimism can be developed or cultivated as a skill. Findings suggest that those who are optimistic are happier. One paragraph from Seligman’s book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, sums up his findings nicely:

“The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.”

To summarize: perspective matters. They way that one conceives of affairs makes a difference. Learned optimism isn’t about putting on panglossian blinders and pretending that mere hope and cheer will solve the problems of the day. Rather, it’s about accepting that in certain circumstances one’s approach to conceiving of the nature of a problem or challenge will have an impact on both how someone feels about that challenge and how they go about addressing it.


Optimism and politics

Learned optimism as a approach to life provides a toolkit that we might use when approaching how to solve political problems. This kit includes a lens through which to view those problems—as temporary and solvable, for instance—and a series of practices of the self that might be used to cultivate the perspective necessary for getting to work on fixing things. The first requirement of overcoming any political challenge—or any challenge—is believing that it can be overcome. Otherwise, why bother? It then becomes a matter of further cultivating one’s optimism and developing particular tactics and strategies for addressing what needs to be done.

What  these would look like, I’m not sure. For individuals I’m offering a hypothesis (that learned optimism can change how we do politics, for the better) and issuing a challenge (try and find out if I’m right). There’s plenty of literature that can be taken up and put to work, some it listed here in the further reading section. For scholars, I offer the same hypothesis and challenge and an additional call to action: to research positive psychology in general and learned optimism in particular in the context of contemporary politics. The key takeaway to remember, as we do, is this: we need to believe that our political problems are temporary, in part the consequence of bad luck, and within our power to solve.


The practice of optimistic politics

Decades of research in psychology has led to the conclusion that how we conceive of and approach a problem matters. That finding applies to our day-to-day lives, but also to our political lives. Politics is an endeavor we all share, whether we approve of it or not. The quotation attributed to Pericles gets at the matter best: “Just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean that politics won’t take an interest in you”. Challenges such as climate change, growing income disparity, overcrowded prisons, substance abuse, disease, and geopolitical instability are shared by the hyper-political and the avowed-apathetic alike (though I have never met the woman or man who truly identifies as among the latter), and the consequences of not addressing them, or addressing them poorly, will be escaped by few.

If our difficulties are indeed shared, if we can each play some role in addressing them, and, further, if an optimistic perspective can improve our chances of coming up with and implementing solutions, then our course of action seems obvious. We must begin the long, dedicated work of building better political selves. We must take on the task of bringing about what Aristotle called the virtuous life, what Nietzsche and Foucault conceived of as the arts of the self, and what we might just call self-work. Not only might this sunny approach make us all a bit happier, it might just save our lives.


Further Reading

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Howard Gardner. 2004. Changing Minds: The Art And Science of Changing Our Own And Other People’s Minds. Leadership for the Common Good.

Christopher Peterson. 2012. Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Martin Seligman. 1991. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage.

Martin Seligman. 2011. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Atria Books.

Friedrich Nietzsche. 1882. The Gay Science. EW Fritzsch.

Aristotle. 350 BCE. The Nicomachean Ethics.

Shane J. Lopez, Jennifer Teramoto Pedrotti, C. R. Snyder. 2005. Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strength. SAGE Publications, Inc.

Listen to Martin Seligman’s TED Talk on “The New Era of Positive Psychology” here.

Take Stanford University’s “learned optimism test” here.


Featured Image courtesy of Kaboom

About The Author

David Moscrop
Economics and Politics Editor

David Moscrop is a PhD candidate, Vanier Scholar, and Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He studies the social and cognitive psychology of political judgment in democratic societies. His doctoral research asks and answers the question “Can ordinary citizens make good political decisions?” He is also a freelance writer and pundit whose work has appeared in the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, the Vancouver Sun, the Huffington Post, Maclean’s, This Magazine, and several other media outlets and blogs. In October 2014, his research was featured on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio program Ideas in an episode entitled ‘Too Dumb for Democracy’. Why I Love Working at Hippo Very few publications bridge the gap between academic discourse and popular interests; Hippo Reads does this remarkably well. Being a part of a smart, on point, constructive, and ongoing discussion about contemporary ideas is a privilege. My Favorite Academic Work Plato's Republic. It's a mess, but it's the mess that started it all for the West. In another life I’d be Treasure hunter. I'm entirely serious. But I wouldn't keep anything that I found that was of historical value, because "It belongs in a museum!" My favorite animal: Shark! Unless I'm scuba diving and come across one, in which case my favorite animal is the boat that I'm swimming to very quickly.