Why Do So Many People Hate Optimists?

It's time to stop wallowing in pessimism about the world's future. 
Reuters

Over the past four weeks, we’ve had a run of undeniably good news. A panoply of data has shown that the U.S. economic system appears to be on firm ground. More people have jobs, albeit not necessarily sterling jobs, and the pace of overall activity as measured by GDP is at the highest level in two years, expanding at 4.1 percent annually. On the political front, Congress passed a budget for the first time in more than three years, which suggests a period ahead where Washington tantrums do not threaten to upend whatever delicate equilibrium currently exists.

And yet, an aura of unease still seems to hover over us. In the year or more that I have written this column, I have often emphasized the way in which things may be going at least a bit right. That contrasts with the frequently repeated mantra that we are going dangerously off the rails. Of course, like anyone, I may be right or wrong or somewhere in between. What’s been perplexing about responses to this column, however, isn’t whether the analysis is right or wrong, wise or naïve, but that the very hint of optimism makes a fair number of people extremely angry.

It may be, of course, that my optimism is misplaced. It may be that the United States is actually headed to hell in a proverbial handbasket; that Europe is in a brief lull before its next leg toward dissolution of the Union; that Japan’s easy money spigot unleashed by the new government of Shinzo Abe will end with the same no-exit stagnation of the past 20 years; and the glorious story of emerging economies from Brazil to Mexico to India to China will end not so gloriously. It may also be that whatever appears to be working in the developed world is in truth working only for a small minority—for the wealthy and members of the middle class in privileged urban areas, and for anyone tethered to financial markets and global commerce.

But possibly being wrong doesn’t explain the anger my columns have provoked, in the form of email and online reactions. Weather forecasters and sports experts are routinely wrong about outcomes, and while those missed predictions can trigger some ridicule, they’re not usually a recipe for rage.

True, the online world of comments and commentary skews towards the negative, especially in the realm of economics and politics. People are more likely to express feelings based on disagreement and a sense of outrage than they are to react based on concord. Anger is a hot experience that triggers action; agreement, even strong agreement, tends to be a more passive reaction.

But why does optimism about today’s world generate such strong hostility? Perhaps because it contradicts what many people believe. Positive views on the present are seen as a slap in the face by people who have negative experiences, which, according to some polls, is the majority of Americans. Surveys suggest that more Americans than ever—66 percent, according to one poll—believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Other polls say much the same thing. Two years ago the numbers were even worse. Americans of the past few years are less positive about the future than they have been at any point since the 1970s.

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Zachary Karabell is Head of Global Strategy at Envestnet, a financial services firm, and author of The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World. More

At River Twice Research, Karabell analyzes economic and political trends. He is also a senior advisor for Business for Social Responsibility. Previously, he was executive vice president, head of marketing and chief economist at Fred Alger Management, a New York-based investment firm, and president of Fred Alger and Company, as well as portfolio manager of the China-U.S. Growth Fund, which won a five-star designation from Morningstar. He was also executive vice president of Alger's Spectra Funds, which launched the $30 million Spectra Green Fund based on the idea that profit and sustainability are linked. Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., he is the author of several books, including Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It (2009), The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, and Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence (2007), which examined the forgotten legacy of peace among the three faiths. In 2003, the World Economic Forum designated Karabell a "Global Leader for Tomorrow." He sits on the board of the World Policy Institute and the New America Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a regular commentator on national news programs, such as CNBC and CNN, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs.

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