Past Event

Think Positive

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” –Antonio Gramsci

Flowers are blooming, the sun is shining and leaves on the trees are green. Spring has sprung, bringing optimism, renewal, and the notion that winter’s drudgery will be washed away by the brushstrokes of sunrays.

But with terrorist plots, Wall-Street greed, environmental collapse and economic woes at an all-time peak, is optimism all we need to refresh and recharge our democracy? Or do we need a little pessimism to get the job done?
According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, “Americans have lost faith in both political parties; they do not feel confident about the present or the future; 61% feel as though the country is in the midst of a severe decline.” Perhaps there is more to our pessimism than lack of imagination. Oscar Wilde wrote: “Pessimist: one who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both.”

For anyone looking to be informed on the happenings of our democracy, the news offers little hope or cheer. Reports of escalating violence and skyrocketing unemployment rates may keep one civically abreast, but does it also dash our hope?

It has been said that optimism leads to complacency. America has been charged with being the birthplace of positive thinking. Social inequalities have often been blamed on Americans being overly complicit and trustful.  This, some argue, is what propels social justice -distrust of a system that often fails those who are less fortunate.
Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America writes, “If you want to have a compliant populace, what could be better than to say that everyone has to think positively and accept that anything that goes wrong in their lives is their own fault?

Should hope be the bedrock of social change? And if not, where do we find balance?
Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics, is an eternal optimist. In an interview with Yes! Magazine, she argued that cooperation, not competition, is the key to unlocking our true democratic values. Ostrom says, “Well, I don’t see the human as hopeless. There’s a general tendency to presume people just act for short-term profit. But anyone who knows about small-town businesses and how people in a community relate to one another realizes that many of those decisions are not just for profit and that humans do try to organize and solve problems.”  

Ostrom isn’t alone. Ruth Kaiser, founder of the Spontaneous Smiley Project, is using her project to open up dialogue with children about optimism and the importance of attitude. She said, “The behavior you show to another person really makes a difference. Are you going to be the person who has an open and loving heart or the person who’s filled with anger and stress?”

The defining characteristics of social innovators are optimism, creativity and democracy.  So is it really that Pollyanna of us, to remain positive in the face of overwhelming woes? Author Nicholas Murray Butler wrote, “Optimism is the foundation of courage.” Perhaps optimism and visionary thinking isn’t necessarily blind.
How does focusing on worst-case scenarios disempower us? How does optimism and holding government accountable, work hand in hand? What are the dangers of positive thinking? How can optimism refresh democracy? In what ways can the media be restructured by presenting more visionary stories? How is courage the bedrock of optimism? How can democracy be encouraged by negative and positive thought? In what ways can optimism shape community? How can we be creative, bold and determined while remaining realistic?

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