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The origins of optimism

What is optimism and where did it come from?
 

As Australian Unity embarks on a marketing campaign titled, “Join the optimists”, those stationed in Australian Unity HQ have been toiling away in The Optimists Club, trying to gain a greater understanding of this form of thinking.
With that as our opening, we thought it would be interesting to touch on the history of optimismand its modern day definition.


What is optimism and where did it come from?

As Australian Unity embarks on a marketing campaign titled, “Join the optimists”, those stationed in Australian Unity HQ have been toiling away in The Optimists Club, trying to gain a greater understanding of this form of thinking.

With that as our opening, we thought it would be interesting to touch on the history of optimism and its modern day definition.



Timeline of optimism
1710: Referred to by the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz who wrote Théodicée.
Leibniz wanted to answer the question of why God, believed to be morally perfect and omnipotent, would allow evil to exist within society.  His belief was that humans are limited in wisdom and thus God is required to allow for moral evil (sin) and physical evil (pain and suffering) to correct human imperfections and their erroneous decisions.  This justification plays into his belief that God created “the best of all possible worlds” (Peterson, 2000).

1759: Philosopher Voltaire, published Candide, ou l’Optimisme (translated to English in 1759 Candide: or The Optimist) summarised as an attack on Leibnizian optimism.  Professor Pangloss, a central character, is a self-proclaimed follower of Leibniz and imparts the following teaching as his rationale of why it is good that syphilis exists. 

it was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not caught in an island in America this disease, which contaminates the source of generation, and frequently impedes propagation itself, and is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should have had neither chocolate nor cochineal.

1913: Optimism is showcased to children through the best-selling novel by Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna, where the fictional character named Pollyanna Whittier, lives her life by playing “The Glad Game”, no matter what happens, there is always something to be glad about.  The reference made in this instance is to “blind optimism” (Porter, 1913).

Post 1913 and the definition and understanding of optimism was taken on by many brilliant minds to give it a greater level of respect and depth to where it now sits comfortably in our day-to-day vernacular; from politicians to young parents.

What is optimism?
It is important to note that when discussing optimism, the definition and use can vary depending on the individual.  

It is with that understanding that we lean on the explanation by anthropologist Lionel Tiger, in his book Optimism: The Biology of Hope, as he defines optimism as, “a mood or attitude associated with an expectation about the social or material future—one which the evaluator regards as socially desirable, to his [or her] advantage, or for his [or her] pleasure” (Tiger, 1979).

Professor Martin Seligman, known for his work in positive psychology, concurs with Tiger’s definition and states that, “the basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes” (Seligman, 1996).

Another main way to define optimism is to use the concept of 'explanatory style' (the way we explain our failures and successes).

Each of us has our own “explanatory style”, a way of thinking about the causes of things that happen in our lives. We develop our explanatory style during our childhood as a result of our biological make-up and learning experiences and, unless deliberate steps are taken to change it, it will last for the whole of our life, acting as a prism through which we explain to ourselves why things, good or bad, happen to us (Peterson, 2000).

Over the course of the next few months, we here at The Optimists Club, will look to refine, update and expand on all things surrounding the concept of optimism.  We hope you enjoy!


References

Peterson, C. ,2000. The American Psychologist. The Future of Optimism. Vol. 55 (1), p.44-55.

Porter, E. (1913), Pollyanna. New York: L. C. Page

Seligman, M. (1996). The optimistic child: Proven program to safeguard children from depression and build lifelong resilience. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Tiger, Lionel. (1979). Optimism: The Biology of Hope. New York: Simon and Schuster

The Optimist Club involves a number of Australian Unity staff who meet several times per month to discuss all things optimistic…and sometimes not! We don’t profess to be experts on the subject.  We are simply a passionate bunch, who have an optimistic outlook on life.  We will aim to share with you our various discoveries along the way.  So “Join the Optimists” or don’t!  But thanks for stopping by.