Where Has Our Optimism Gone? 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 156

Kevin Novak
8 min readApr 18, 2024

Issue 156, April 18, 2024

If you were asked to describe the personality of America you might use the adjectives resilient, optimistic, can-do, problem-solving. Our history has been built on these principles and they are still very much embedded in what drives our economy. However, what’s driving our culture seems to be shifting from these positive “optimistic, can-do” characteristics and turning to a darker, more fractious side — if you believe what you see, hear, or read in news reports.

Last week in discussing reactive and reflective decision-making, we alluded to a potential trend towards pessimism resulting from the near-constant flow of information, all representing various opinions and views. The frustration for individuals results in how to determine fact from fiction. Feelings of being beaten down and/or overwhelmed may have a direct influence on how we see and interpret the world around us.

Shared Optimism

Last week many of us had a shared experience and the rest of the country was swept into the fray. The New York Times reported, “For a nation pulled apart by every manner of division, the eclipse offered a moment of unity, however brief. It was a reminder to everyone, on the same day and at the same time, that life can be magical. That being alive is a collective experience. That there is something astonishing about being part of the greater story of things.” If only that sense of collective optimism were sustainable.

Optimism Deferred

Being a realist, critical thinker, and healthy skeptic can be a lonely vigil. As such, we are concerned about how our society is portrayed in the media, represented by social advocacy groups, and polarized by political parties that influence the perception of reality held by many ordinary people. There is a correlation between public and private sentiments.

The headlines read that our economy is improving and even defying expectations with growth. Unemployment continues at historic lows, the stock market is exceeding all expectations and hitting new highs, and the Fed, despite a recent report on a rise in inflation, appears committed to cutting interest rates later this year. In terms of employment, the Wall Street Journal reports “The share of people quitting their jobs each month has fallen to pre-pandemic levels, which indicates that the intensity with which businesses were hiring away workers from each other has subsided. Moreover, the private-sector job market has been drawing most of its strength from just two broad sectors — private education and healthcare, and leisure and hospitality.”

Despite these sunny reports, many Americans share the mindset that the sky is falling. Where has their optimism gone? Why is perception so different from reality? What is driving a continued decreasing satisfaction with work, government, social issues and so much more?

Today’s Work Environment

Many employees claim to be unhappy at work, and next gens are experiencing well-documented mental health issues, loneliness, and difficulty navigating the workplace. We dove into issues affecting our youth in this newsletter.

The adjustment to hybrid work may be one factor contributing to their feelings. Even though many state that life/work balance is better working remotely/hybrid, it may depend on the situation. Here’s how this plays out in real life. We know a bright 30-something attorney who recently relocated to a new city for his new job. He has no friends in his new town and works remotely four days a week. He’s a sensitive, thoughtful young man and when he came into the office recently, he plaintively said to his manager, “I really need a hug.” Needless to say, the HR wheels kicked in and instead of the two of them talking about it, the policies and rules about such a request overruled empathetic conversation.

And then there is an undercurrent of cynicism among younger people. Recent news reports an emerging trend of Gen Z bailing on college and finding more value in a career in the trades. What has tipped the scales from our American mantra on higher education as the greatest investment for one’s future? In a New Yorker interview, Cartoonist Lynda Barry says, “These kids are feeling that every choice should have some utility, and everybody’s freaked out about how they’re going to make a living. Plus, some have $60,000 in education debt. How does someone get out from under that?”

And forget about technology and its role in creating a dystopian society. Barry says, “The main thing about the phone is that you’re no longer where you are. You’re no longer in the room. You’re no longer anywhere. The opportunities to have an interaction with the things around you are taken away. I just see the world as richer without the phone.” Social media also gets a bad review as, “something that closes you off to the world that you’re in — I mean, I could be on TikTok all night long. I keep deleting that app because I love it so much. But when something takes you out of your environment, you pay a high price.”

What’s going on here? How can we help ourselves see the positive? How do we recognize there are so very many reasons to be optimistic?

Reversing the Perception and the Mindset

One approach is to take charge of your life, professionally and personally. In short, manage what is in front of you, limit what you are exposed to, and seek to focus on the positive.

For example, how many of us are completely incapacitated by the torrent of emails we get and the stockpile of read/unread/lost emails floating around somewhere in our systems? How many of us can work and live at this high level of intensity day to day without eventually collapsing or even breaking down? When we seem to lose control given the high quantity of inputs and demands, we may see our actions or lack thereof as failure. Failure, even perceptively, correlates to negativity, which in turn can influence a mental state of pessimism. The saying goes we are what we eat. Perhaps in today’s hyper-connected world, we can say we are what we see, hear, and read.

We tend to measure performance individually and organizationally when things are going well. When we believe things are going well, there is optimism, not just for the successes but also as a ripple effect on how we see the world around us.

There is also another explanation for the sense of growing pessimism. Despite the great data being reported, the information tends to focus on the aggregate. Aggregates are not necessarily what we experience. Our lives are more immediate and the decisions we make are not based on aggregates. We manage what is in front of us, not a national average. That said, rising prices on a local level hit ordinary people hard and resulted in holding back or giving up items or experiences they formerly could afford.

Creativity in Focus

Getting back to basics, the most optimistic people we know are children. Barry pioneered a program that invites children to help graduate students with problem-solving. “They’re PhD students from almost any discipline and 4-year-olds or 3-year-olds. It started because I noticed that whenever I was in some big creative jam, it was an interaction with a kid that got me out of it. When I started teaching at the university, I couldn’t understand why all the grad students were so miserable. I could pick them out just by the way they walked in the room. These are people that are at the top of their game. They’ve already shown that they want to work. Why is it acceptable that they’re all miserable?

“I thought, it is this laser focus on getting one particular thing done. This feeling is that unless you’re working on it at all times, things are going to be bad. That kind of focus doesn’t set the conditions for insight or discovery.” So, she enlists the children to help. “The kids could shift the students’ perspectives in really helpful ways. I had my students copy what the kids were doing, or I got the kids to draw the answer to questions like, ‘What are microbes?’ And my students had to be on the floor with them working together. They had to try to get into their mindset. After you spend about 90 minutes with them, you just find that something has loosened up. You get away from that laser-focused, worrisome way of being.”

So, optimism can be retrained by going back to the future.

Influence and Deception

Is it really all that bad? Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Axios propose an unconventional thought experiment. “What if we’ve been deceived into thinking we’re more divided, more dysfunctional and more defeated than we actually are?” They call it a reality distortion bubble, and we’re on board with the notion that we’ve been swayed by the fringes — on all sides. Who has the loudest voice, amplified by social media and news coverage? If something is heard, read or viewed multiple times, it becomes knowledge, perspective and belief. Regardless of its truth. In a recent cable news channel report, subjects were interviewed about the cause they were representing. When the reporter asked for specific incidents or changes that the subjects felt took the country in the wrong direction. The subjects were hard-pressed to bring forward the “causation” or “event” that caused them to feel the way they do. Some just responded, I am not sure, it is just how I feel. Feelings, aka emotions, are important, but it is equally important to know what has generated those feelings. A headline? A news report? An aggregate data point?

Most resilient, optimistic, can-do Americans are doing the best they can in their jobs, communities and with their families. VandeHei and Allen say, “In a given year, you meet scores or more people you spend enough time with to appraise their character. Think about them: How many do you think are decent, normal people who do volunteer work, help shovel after a storm, and look out for family and neighbors? The answer will help pop your reality distortion bubble.” At our core, we remain can-do Americans.

Fleeting Optimism

We are by no means Pollyanna’s, but focusing on the negative is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We work with clients to balance an objective sense of realism with their innate optimism and resilience. We have reported on the emerging trend to disconnect and stow the phone. JoMo (Joy of Missing Out) is the new FoMO. Optimism is generally just under the surface of an interim pessimistic outlook. Don’t believe everything you read, hear or see. Be mindful, discerning and thoughtful. Consider different viewpoints and perspectives. And use critical thinking to make sense of the nonsensical and the positive out of the negative.

We have it within ourselves, individually and collectively to return to optimism.

Explore this issue and all past issues on 2040’s Website or via our Substack Newsletter.

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Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (www.2040digital.com), IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut