In uncertain times, optimism can be dismissed as a hopeful belief in silver linings, lemonade from lemons and half-full glasses—the ability to look reality square in the eye, and deny it.
But to really understand the power of realistic optimism is to know that it is much more substantial than simply looking on the bright side of life. It is the beating heart of change.
Optimism is not based on ignoring the obstacles we face. But it is rooted in the belief that we can knock them down. It is about having a clear-eyed confidence that—after a thorough review of the evidence—change is possible, and we will ultimately end up in a better place than where we started.
As 2016 begins, optimism is being tested by events and trends that may seem unprecedented, confusing and beyond our control. But there is an old and useful saying: “In times like these, it’s good to remember that there have always been times like these.”
Tests are a normal part of life in every time. And ours is no different. Truly unprecedented would be a path through 2016 free of challenges. The tests we face, however, are ones we can overcome. We’ve been here before, and we’ve seen worse.
Every news cycle has the potential to add another layer of conviction that the world is in a state of ominous disarray. And there are shifting dimensions to our collective angst. But if we dig a little deeper, optimism rests on bedrock. Consider some facts that tend to get lost in all the negative news and noise.
Global incomes are rising, and extreme poverty is declining. Global life expectancy is improving. Thanks to technology and tolerance, humanity has never been more connected or better able to understand differences. While violence can flare up with horrific unpredictability and armed conflict continues to impact far too many nations and people, the vast majority of our world remains peaceful.
Overall trends in everything from crime to substance abuse, while varying by country, are improving. We’re closing in on a new era of trade agreements that are tightening global connections. And last month, 196 countries reached an historic agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The follow through will take many years, but the agreement signals something new and potentially transformative in our ability to forge common agreement to take on a shared threat.
I think it’s also telling that government officials and others are beginning to take seriously the idea of “sustainable happiness”—the notion that progress is not measured by GDP alone. It’s also about how health, happiness and general wellbeing are improving.
The most important element in the case for optimism is people, where all societal change begins. A succession of studies tells us that, despite all the economic, social and political upheavals, a new generation of consumers is optimistic about the future and—importantly—sees free markets as our greatest hope for a better world. Their numbers are already large enough to earn their own name: “the aspirationals.”
While we can all debate the fine points and work toward needed solutions, the fact is, even though progress is uncertain and uneven, the world is heading in the right direction.
And that direction has some very important implications in the case for optimism for a business like
All of us who are confident we can build a stronger company and a stronger system in a better world can take heart in something Winston Churchill said about being an optimist: “It does not seem to be much use being anything else.” And he couldn’t have been more right.
Here’s to a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016!
Muhtar Kent is chairman and CEO of The
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