Tragic Optimism will get us through tough times

We can all lend a helping hand to those in need (Lifeline Aotearoa)

Kieran Madden
Auckland, September 6, 2022

“Yeah, everything sucks. Get used to it.”

How about that for a headline?

Or “Covid, housing, inflation – everything feels bad all the time, and it’s not just you.”

These are samples of opinion pieces getting to the heart of a growing sense of hopelessness in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our collective mental health is getting worse. Putting policy aside, how can we personally make sense of this time?

Duncan Greive, who wrote the last piece, notes we are living in a contradiction: “Firstly, that we are supposed to be ‘enjoying getting back to normal,’” and “secondly, that nothing at all is normal, and that heaps of stuff objectively sucks.”

Greive reckons that we should acknowledge this reality, be chill, and grit our teeth while hoping “the world will catch a break and something better will come.”

Annoying optimism

A good starting point. It is better than “toxic positivity,” an unrealistic, unrelenting, and frankly annoying optimism where negative emotions are denied and seen as a failure.

It is also better than “languishing,” what the New York Times called “the dominant emotion of 2021” and the “neglected middle child of mental health” between depression and flourishing,  stagnation, aimlessness, and demotivation. This term certainly resonated with me at times.

Kieran Madden

Perhaps the greatest temptation is to sink into cynicism: “​The belief that something good will not happen” or “the belief that people only do things to help themselves,” as Oxford Dictionary puts it. A cynical worldview does not leave space for hope for ourselves or our fellow New Zealanders.

There is research from a worldwide survey that people tend to think cynical people are more intelligent on average. In reality, cynics tend to do worse on cognitive ability and academic competency tests. So, we should avoid cynicism, especially if we value being clever.

Wellbeing during the pandemic

What are we left with? “Tragic optimism,” an idea of psychologist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl developed in 1984. It is about searching for meaning in life and remaining hopeful, despite the inevitable pain and suffering we all face.

Frankl says it is “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” through learning from our suffering, devotion to work, loving others, taking responsibility for what we do, and living life as if it may end tomorrow.

There is good empirical evidence to support Frankl’s approach. A 2020 U.K. study into well-being during the pandemic found that out of “physical activity, gratitude, tragic optimism, social support, and nature connection,” gratitude and tragic optimism were the standout factors that improved well-being.

Everything might feel bad all the time when we are supposed to be feeling good about the new normal on the other side of lockdowns and stricter distancing settings.

I said that I would put policy aside, but as we head to the polls next year, how we respond and grow through these times will affect how we vote and engage with others politically.

Toxic positivity, languishing, or cynicism will not get us far, but adopting some form of Frankl’s tragic optimism

can make this time more meaningful and maybe even hopeful.

Kieran Madden is Director of Research and Development at Maxim Institute, an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

 

 

 

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