Service of Optimism

June 26th, 2014

Categories: Foreign Affairs, Happiness, History, Optimism

Americans are encouraged—even expected–to be happy and optimistic. Corporate, popular and sports cultures promote a “you can do it, anything’s possible” approach: it’s the Declaration of Independence’s “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in action.

New York Times best-selling authors such as Gretchen Rubin study happiness and travel the world sharing tips encouraging small changes to achieve it. Making your bed daily is one antidote to consider if you can’t correct big things such as a miserable job. Rubin recently addressed The American Society of Journalists & Authors as a result of which David Levine interviewed her for a blog post “Gretchen Rubin: serious about happiness: The bestselling author of The Happiness Project talks about the discipline of happiness – and what you should avoid doing.”

I thought of our culture and of Rubin in reading Walter Russell Mead’s opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal: “For the U.S., a Disappointing World: The chaos in Iraq is just the latest evidence that history doesn’t follow America’s optimistic script.”

The foreign affairs and humanities professor at Bard College pointed out the similarities between Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush in their approach to foreign affairs: “While it is true that both presidents got some important things wrong, it is what unites them rather than what divides them that is the root cause of our troubles. Both Messrs. Bush and Obama, like many of their fellow citizens, radically underestimate the dangers and difficulties in the path of historical progress.

“Americans tend to believe that history is easy and that things usually work out for the best. When the French Revolution began, many Americans followed Thomas Jefferson’s lead in thinking that the overthrow of Louis XVI would lead rapidly to democracy in Europe. Before World War I, most Americans believed that another great European war was unthinkable; when that war ended, President Woodrow Wilson was sure that a global democratic peace was on the way.”

He pointed out that the American standard of living has always been higher than others– starting after the Revolution—and that it affects our rosy attitude. He wrote: “This happy history shapes our thinking about the world more than most of us know. Whether conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, Americans tend to think that history doesn’t matter much, that win-win solutions are easily found and that world history is moving inexorably toward a better and more peaceful place.”

Additional excerpts from his thoughtful piece: “The holiday from history came to an end on 9/11, but the Bush administration’s subsequent approach to Iraq and the Middle East dramatically underestimated the difficulty of building stable democracies in a troubled region.”

Mead also observed: “Today we see a very different world. We are being forced to remember something we’d rather forget: that history is hard, that the choices it forces on us are sometimes harsh and that not everything ends in win-win.”

Isolation isn’t the answer, he concluded. “What we need instead is realistic goals and historical modesty—perhaps, at last, a foreign policy that is more about preventing catastrophes than constructing utopias.”

Do you think that too much optimism can be problematic and that our eternal search for happiness and peace for all is unrealistic? Does this approach steer our leaders into making inappropriate decisions?

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6 Responses to “Service of Optimism”

  1. ASK Said:

    History is hard? What does that really mean? We should learn from history…but don’t. Happiness is a state of mind that I have come to believe is simply not accessible to certain personalities. I suspect Ms. Rubin is very happy because she is no doubt making a lot of money trying to convince these people they can do it.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Ms. Rubin is very successful which helps a person’s happiness quotient both from the work-satisfaction aspect to the comfort success brings. That said, I know severely unhappy wealthy people who have nothing but complaints, never have enough, and can be downright unpleasant and difficult to be around–so who knows. As one of my friends used to say, “Nobody gets out free.” I wish her no ill and frankly, being the hopeful type who drank the Kool-Aid that was laced with optimism, like to believe she’s right.

    I think what Professor Mead means is that because Americans have had it easy–our high standard of living compared to the rest of the world and up until 9/11, our happy history that began after the American Revolution–“shapes our thinking about the world more than most of us know.”

    And he wrote what you did, that history doesn’t matter to Americans much, and that we think “that win-win solutions are easily found and that world history is moving inexorably toward a better and more peaceful place.”

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    Too many generalizations about what Americans think and too few specifics. A scientific evaluation would be more accurate than a “brilliant” piece. At the risk of being the designated party poop of the day, I respectfully suggest no one involved has read much, if any, Theodore Dreiser. Optimism, indeed!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Don’t blame Professor Mead for the hatchet job I did sharing highlights of his article. He directed his opinion piece to foreign policy and the similarities in approach between the current and immediate past US Presidents, noting the background and legacy for their gung-ho outlooks. Who knows why he didn’t list prominent exceptions [to prove the rule]—space constraints is the first reason that comes to mind.

  5. PLM Said:

    Upon reading Jefferson’s words, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” in your piece today, the first thing I thought of was Candide’s “best of all possible worlds.” The hero of Voltaire’s marvelous satire should have been an American, except that the United States didn’t exist when the author wrote “Candide.”

    When young Thomas created his political masterpiece, he was pumped up with Enlightenment zeal. I’ve often wondered whether he had already come across “Candide” by then. I don’t think so because, if he had, I suspect he would have been a touch more restrained about the pursuit of happiness bit.

    Professor Mead is absolutely right about our penchant for mind numbing optimism, but I’d add that when the founding fathers were at it, they saw vast empty spaces, rich in natural resources, in which we could expand, and rightly believed that the country would consequently grow rich and powerful. But that was then, not now.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You hit on it: “Candide!” Oh my.

    As you wrote, America is no longer the youngster with lots of obvious growth ahead. We’ve grown, are beginning to split our britches in fact, and as adults, must adjust our behavior to match our maturity and the different circumstances around us and our relationship to the other grownups/countries and cultures we’re dealing with.

    Between you and Professor Mead the path seems so obvious, so simple–oh! There I go again with typical, simplified American über-hope. As I’ve often admitted, I used to be inspired by hearing Norman Vincent Peale’s inspirational sermons broadcast on Sunday nights when I’d plan to do my ironing. His, the matching “you can do anything you set out to do” attitude of the school I went to for 12 years and the culture all had their impact. Lucky I’m not in politics.

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