Can we be optimistic about the coming new year?
What a year we've just lived through!
So many things went wrong. The economy went into crisis mode. Our retirement funds dwindled in value and jobs became scarcer. Mother Nature took it out on us with a vengeance, smiting us with hurricanes, earthquakes and unbearable temperatures. Rebellions and revolutions spread around the globe and the vision of universal peace realistically seemed further away than ever.
And with all that came a visible cultural change that we can't remember afflicting us any time in the past.
The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did."
Peggy Noonan captured it precisely in a perceptive article she wrote in the Wall Street Journal. She put it this way: “The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did … the country I was raised in was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought – wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances – that their children would have better lives than they did. That was what kept people pulling their boots on in the morning after the first weary pause: my kids will have it better… Parents now fear something has stopped … our view of the future is now fundamentally pessimistic.”
Till now the American spirit was defined by optimism. The American dream was built on the hope for a constantly improving future. Growth, prosperity and ever greater success were assumed almost as if they were part of our deserved birthright.
Every new year could be counted on to be better than the one before.
But that's no longer true.
As we carry on our annual tradition to wish each other a happy new year before this Rosh Hashanah, we have to stop and wonder whether this time the greeting is unrealistic. Can we, should we, really expect happy times ahead? In times such as these, is it rational to still be optimistic?
Te answer I believe is that it isn't simply permissible to be an optimist, it's a mitzvah and it's mandatory!
Is God an Optimist?
Which of the two is the Creator of the universe—an optimist or a pessimist? If we believe the words of the Bible, all we have to do is look at the opening chapter. Every day God created something different and then He figuratively stepped back to evaluate what He had brought into being. What He saw pleased Him greatly, and from day to day he gave His verdict that “it was good.” Then, when He finally completed His work with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
That’s why William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, was right when he said that, “Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.” A pessimist disagrees with divine judgment. A pessimist believes that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Too bad he doesn’t take seriously the opinion of the One who made it!
Psychologist Martin Seligman, of the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that pessimism can be changed; people can alter their thinking about bad events and thereby improve their health.
Optimism can be cultivated.
Many health professionals have come to agree with him; optimism can be cultivated. Robert Thayer, a professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, in his book The Origin of Everyday Moods, says that most people erroneously think of optimism and pessimism as fixed traits. But he and his colleagues find that these feelings even in one and the same person tend to come and go. They are like moods that usually are associated with specific moments.
Even when the world around us seems to be crashing and our lives filled with forebodings of disaster, there are ways to prevent ourselves from falling into depression and from assuming that God has forsaken us.
- Dr. Robert Fox, attending psychiatrist at the Portland campus of St. Francis Care Behavioral Health, says helping others helps considerably to build optimism. It seems that loving your neighbor as yourself isn’t just good for your neighbor; it’s a powerful medicine for you as well. “Optimists,” according to Fox, “discover that cooperation is better than competition.”
- Psychologist Michael Mercer, author of Spontaneous Optimism: Proven Strategies for Health, Prosperity, and Happiness, advises that the way to optimism is to concentrate on what you want in life, not on what you don’t want. Optimists, he says, focus on solutions rather than problems. In other words, they switch from thinking, “I hate my boss,” to “What can I do to become a better person?”
- Mercer also stresses the importance of your environment. Spending time with constant complainers will influence your thinking. Having friends who enjoy life and laugh often will do wonders for your disposition. Developing a sense of community by joining a church or synagogue and strengthening positive values creates a totally different inner world, no matter how bad external events appear.
- Mercer suggests that you learn to use upbeat language. Never say you’re tired. Just tell people you need to recharge your batteries. Best of all use prayer to highlight your connection with a higher power and your continued hope for the future.
- Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, stresses that we can choose how we think. Styles of thinking become habits. We can control our thoughts as we can our muscles. Pessimists tend to have hopeless thoughts. They tell themselves, “I’ll never get it right,” or “I always screw up,” or worse, they stamp themselves with a negative label: “I must be stupid.” People have to learn to speak to themselves more kindly, the way you would expect a loving friend to do. If you acted like a jerk, don’t give yourself that description in your own mind, but say, “Sometimes I’m not as considerate as I’d like to be, but overall I know I’m a kind person.” His advice, to my mind, echoes the profound admonition of the great sage the Chafetz Chaim, who warned that it is just as sinful to speak ill of oneself as it is to speak badly of others.
- Accept the wisdom of William James, who claimed that, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” Concentration camp survivors often explain that their most important strategy for staying alive was imagining in their minds eating an entire meal, from appetizer to dessert. They didn’t get any calories but they did affirm their confidence that some day their lives would be normal again. Let the mind think holy thoughts, Jewish sages long ago counseled, and that is how you become holy.
- Learn to look at people and think of their positive qualities rather than their faults. If the first thing you notice about your date is that he’s bald but don’t even see his beautiful smile and his kindly face, you’re probably doomed to a life of loneliness because nobody is good enough for you.
- And most important of all, according to social scientists, is attaching yourself to a belief system that inspires and gives meaning to your life - a spiritual boost that will ensure happiness regardless of trying circumstances.
What all these insightful ideas share in common is that we owe it to ourselves to be optimistic no matter what goes on around us - and that the spiritual values of faith have the greatest potential to achieve that goal.
All this is another way of saying that when we rededicate ourselves to God on the High Holy Days we stand the greatest chance of ensuring that - in spite of everything - we will have a very happy new year.