TERRY PRONE: For the love of God, why not commit that mortal sin called optimism

SOMEWHERE in the last few days, someone pressed the optimism button.

Up to then it was practically illegal to say anything that wasn’t bitter, twisted, pessimistic and vengeful against bankers, developers and politicians. Then, overnight, people started exhorting us to show a bit of fighting spirit, drum up a little glee, dance in the rain or high-tail it to the sunny side of the street and basically make like Pollyanna crossed with a smile badge.

Bill Clinton will probably get the credit for it, having hoarsely advised us all to pull together. I’m not desperately clear who I’m supposed to pull together with and to what purpose, but it had a seductive ring to it, as does anything said by the former president, even his confessions. For example, last week, the Irish media nearly fell over when he casually apologised for his hoarseness and blamed it on staying up too late the night before.

For one brief shining moment, we all hoped Brian Cowen would lean over to him and mutter “That’d leave you a bit congested, all right”, but the Taoiseach just stared grimly ahead, fearful, perhaps, that even self-mocking humour would be interpreted, these days, as a gravity failure on his part.

Gravity failure has been a mortal sin and may continue to be a mortal sin if the demand for optimism doesn’t catch on. It’s an odd thing. We love people in dire medical straits to be optimistic, praising them for fighting their disease or injury. Other than that, we take optimism as a sign of naiveté (the optimist doesn’t appreciate how bad things really are) or insensitivity (the optimist doesn’t appreciate how badly others are suffering).

As a chronic optimist, I used to get this double whammy at home. I would commit some crime equivalent in my mother’s eyes to what the bankers/developers/Government did to cause the meltdown. I would acknowledge my evildoing in all of its detail, accept my punishment and head up the stairs to tidy my bedroom. Tidying my bedroom was always part of any domestic prison sentence, largely because the average pigsty or landfill was in better nick than the skip wherein I laid my weary head at night, having climbed an Everest of garbage to get to the bed.

So upstairs I’d go and close the door on Castle Chaos. As soon as I began lifting some of the piles of rubbish off the floor, I’d discover a book I’d thought I’d lost, an unopened Klipso bar (even today, the cheapest toffee you can buy – they withstand vigorous chewing for eternity) or a long-missing shoe.

Any one of these finds would put me in high good humour, so I’d begin to sing. Which of course meant that when I carried all the dirty clothes downstairs to shove in the washing machine, my mother would have a face on her like a funeral, because my original crime had now been aggravated by my failure to register its vile nature by staying squashed and keeping sadly silent. If my sister had been fool enough to come in on the harmony line of my ditty, she became an accessory after the fact and got her ticket to Coventry too.

In fact, being optimistic, even if you don’t naturally feel optimistic, enhances your chances of surviving bad times and helping others survive them, too. The problem is that our focus on the negative permeates how we look at mental health – as pointed out by Martin Seligman, a psychologist who has led the study of optimism as a trait. Before he became President of the American Psychological Association, his analysis of major published studies on mental health revealed more than 50,000 studies on depression, more than 41,000 on anxiety, and fewer than 2,000 on happiness. Why?

“Psychology, since World War II, focussed on the question of how we can cure mental illness,” is Seligman’s answer, adding that this focus has led to considerable progress in the field. “There are by my count at least 14 mental illnesses we can now treat or relieve with psychotherapy or drugs. But that’s half the battle. We’ve ignored the other side, which is to ask: How can we take what we are strongest at and built those strengths up so in such a way that they become great buffers against our troubles?”

The core of Seligman’s work is finding out what makes some people calm, positive, flexible and imaginative under pressure and finding ways to inculcate it in others. He was able to prove that natural optimism had much more impact on the success of an insurance sales team than any other factor, including the education level of members of the team.

Identifying that optimistic people do better than pessimistic people is grand, but it doesn’t establish what causes some people to be naturally more sunny in their view of the world and of their future than are others, so Seligman and his team decided to explore the role of religious background in the formation of this key trait.

“Our study looked at 11 major religions in America and how hopeful and optimistic the adherents were,” he wrote. “We looked at the level of optimism in stories the children were told, as well as in the liturgy and sermons. We found strict Calvinists, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews were the most hopeful and optimistic... the fundamentalist religions simply seem to offer more hope for a brighter future than do the more liberal, humanistic ones.”

This may explain why my generation, brought up to believe God was always watching you, lying in wait to catch you committing a mortal sin so he could strike you dead at that moment, ensuring by his thunderbolt that you’d go direct to Hell, are much more chirrupy in the face of the current disaster than people in their 30s and 40s. Later generations grew up on mythology like the Five-Year Career Plan. They got used to job interview questions like “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” To which the honest answer, these days, is “Still in negative equity”.

God love them, they developed the fatal notion that they could control life. Get the points, get the 2:1 degree, get the job with the growing company paying bonuses enabling the purchase of clothes advertised, imperatively, as “must-haves”, get onto the property ladder and all will be well. That was the secular Gospel of the ’90s and early noughties.

Now, not only do they feel they got sold a pup all along, but they’re being subjected to the worst psychological torture available: they keep being told “This is the worst. This is the nadir. We have it sorted, now.” Then it gets worse all over again, and blaming the blameworthy, like drowning sorrows in alcohol or sugar, gives only a brief uplift followed by an even worse downturn.

In the recent past, we had money, and we made a right cobblers out of that gift. For the next 10 years, no matter what parties are in Government, we’ll have no money. But we’ll have time, hopes, dreams and the capacity to drag ourselves and each other to a better future.

God forbid we make a cobblers of that free gift, too.


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