IT IS an observable fact of life that optimists lead happier and more successful lives than pessimists.
They tend to be healthier, wealthier and more fulfilled. Pessimists are often correct – things can turn out badly after all. But their accuracy doesn’t aid them; they feel worse in any event while the optimists’ hope cushions them from adversity, both real and imagined. It is the way of the world.
Only a fool would suggest we should all breeze through life imagining Nirvana so that it will then become a reality. But what is certainly true is that, if we can find a way to fix our default settings to “hope” and “optimism”, we will lead a better life. And if we help others do the same they will too and all shall gain. And if a whole nation can do the same? Well, just imagine the prospects and power of that.
Is ours an optimistic or a pessimistic country? Well, I am thinking we will all give the same, quick answer to that one. We’ve had our moments, of course, but on the whole our national self-talk too often looks down not up. How much of that is intrinsic and how much is learned is another debate, but what is certain is we need to change it and fast.
Those who aspire to leadership in whatever form and forum should understand how ill-divided the country is in this respect. It’s harder to measure than income inequality but equality of “hope” ultimately matters most.
Too many of our fellow citizens are anchored in pessimism and, worse, helplessness; the sense that “my individual actions cannot change my prospects”. Down that particular road lies personal and collective ruin. Chaos in fact.
Analysis from The Futures Company shows that, across the UK, a staggering one in four of us feels we are living right on the edge. With finances ruined by debt we have a survival time of about a month should our main incomes fail. A further 40 per cent plus only holds it together through relentless vigilance and effort; a life of stress and worry.
At the other end, about one in three of us feels we have it all pretty much under control having either saved hard, paid off debt or inherited our share of a grossly ill-divided housing boom. It is a profoundly unequal country across geography, generations, income and, ultimately, hope.
Beginning to change that must be our challenge for 2013, collectively and as individuals. So what role for those to whom others look for leadership in our politics?
One of the best party conference speech lines I have ever heard was delivered by Alex Salmond and written by then SNP chief executive Michael Russell. It was 1997 in the aftermath of the successful referendum to recreate the Scottish Parliament. It intoned the classical tale of Caesar’s march to Rome and his moment of no return. The Rubicon River marked the forbidden boundary for any Roman general at the head of his army to protect the city from armed insurrection. In January 49BC, Caesar made the crossing and “the die was cast” on civil war.
Salmond: “We have broken through a huge psychological barrier, self-confidence has triumphed over self-doubt, the politics of fear have failed, Scotland has crossed the Rubicon to the politics of hope.”
Our metaphorical crossing was more positive than Caesar’s real one. After a long, long time in the making, our feuding political classes had summoned the unity of purpose to persuade the people that their will was indeed settled. It was a rare year when our national sentiment was set to “hope”. It was a happy time. A barrier had been broken through, but the rest of those majestic words unfortunately became whispers in a familiar gale.
Of course, no Rubicon had been crossed. For Scottish politics there was always a fast-track bridge back over the river to politics as usual. And as the klaxon sound of inter-party noise and fury has risen over subsequent years, so the connect with our hopes and fears has been lost.
Politics too much happens “over there”, like the fraternity of some ancient monastery saying daily prayers for a world they rarely touch. The opportunity now presents itself for all political leaders to play their part in positively framing the route they ask us all to take.
No one party should have a monopoly on optimism and hope. It should be the high ground all strive for. And as individuals we must fight our own battle to ensure we live our lives with purpose beyond the immediate worry of me, myself and I. And that takes belief in ourselves and wider society. Lose it and we lose almost all.
The poet Emily Dickinson writing from the seclusion of her Massachusetts home reaches out to us all, some 150 years on:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words And never stops – at all.
The chirp of that little bird should be the birthright of all. But optimism remains a gift if we have it and must be learned by those of us who don’t. As a nation it can be our best asset as we strive to create a country we can be happy to live in and proud to pass on.