Bridging the Optimism Gap

Bridging the Optimism Gap August 1, 2011

This post is part of the Patheos Book Club conversation about Upside: Surprising Good News about the State of Our World.  This is a sponsored post.

Bradley Wright’s new book, Upside: Surprising Good News about the State of Our World was a welcome read this weekend, amid sky-is-falling debt ceiling negotiations.  We seem to have staved of financial Armageddon, but to read the pundits this morning and see the grim-faced photos of the president and congressional leaders in the paper this morning, one isn’t filled with hope.

Upside is a nice remedy to that.  As opposed to fear-mongering that we often get in Christian publishing (on both the left and the right, I must say), Wright has given us a book, the bottom line of which is, Count Your Blessings.

A few years ago, Thomas Frank told us that, in Kansas at least, people will repeatedly vote against their own interests.  His thesis was that poor Kansans will vote for conservative fiscal policy because they hold on to a belief that they will one day be wealthy — thus, they fear the “death tax,” even though it will very likely not affect them.  In other words, people’s reality and their perception can diverge widely.

Wright, a sociologist, finds a similar fissure.  He calls it the “Optimism Gap.” “We’re actually quite optimistic about our own lives,” he writes, “But we’re convinced that almost everyone else is doing poorly.  Basically, we are exceptions to the rule when it comes to life getting worse.”

In other words, our cultural narrative is one of pessimism: the climate is changing, our public education system is losing ground to other countries, kids are getting abducted from the local playground, and American politics are irreparably broken.  But when people are asked how they’re doing, personally, vis-à-vis how they were ten or twenty years ago, they usually answer, “Great!”  Individuals experience the advancements in our culture when it comes to technology, medicine, travel, education, and the like.  But for some reason, they don’t tend to think that those advancements apply to our culture writ large.

All this pessimism hurts us, Wright reports.  It damages our health, it keeps us taking risks that might move us forward, and, I would add, it causes us to “throw the bums out” in nearly every election, leaving us with intractable opposing sides rather than compromising politicians.

Wright’s goal in Upside is to put forward a countervailing narrative.  Chapter after chapter, he shows that the pessimists are generally wrong, that things are pretty good and getting better.

For those of us whose faith centers on a text called “good news,” this book should be a bestseller.

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