We all know the value of optimism and having a positive outlook on life–God knows we hear and read about it often enough from physicians and psychologists. A couple of weeks ago, I read yet another article on optimism and leadership, which I shared with some of my colleagues. The premise of the article was that optimistic leaders make better leaders, which I thought validated what we already know about optimism. However, one of my colleagues raised the question that although there are benefits to being an optimistic leader, is it possible that optimism might be “culture bound?” He further explained that while optimism is much more prevalent in the U.S. where everything seems to be more “upbeat,” this may not be the case in other places of the world.
The comment took me by surprise. Of course optimism is tied to positive outcomes, here in the United States, a place of abundance and options, but how about in places where options, affluence, and abundance are lacking? Is it possible that optimism eludes those for whom life is a daily struggle? How can one focus on possibilities, imagine the “what ifs” of life, or envision happy resolutions to life’s situations, when life’s basic needs are not met? Remember Maslow’s steps of self-actualization—food, shelter, etc?
Reflecting on books and history, as I typically do, I thought of the 19th century English novelists Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, whose writings are anything but upbeat and optimistic. They lived in an era where it was ” the worst of times” for the common people and “the best of times” for the privileged few. Both authors protested the inequities of the classes, and wrote about the struggles of ordinary people trying to survive with limited resources, toiling over the land for sustenance, while enduring the constraints and prejudices of the English societal class structure. Optimism is hard to come by in the works of Hardy and D.H. Lawrence.
Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure are a couple of my favorite novels, along with D.H. Lawrence’s Sons an-d Lovers, but my God, are they depressing! Optimism, nowhere to be found! The reader is given a strong and, at times, an overwhelming dose of realism. On my last trip to England I visited Wessex, what the locals call Thomas Hardy country, and I was told that indeed Hardy’s novels accurately reflected the realism of the times: the daily struggle of coping with the restrictions of the society’s class system, farmers working the lands and being at the mercy of nature’s forces, and in general people having very little to look forward to, let alone foster any feelings of optimism.
To refresh my memory of Hardy’s work, I decided to read The Return of the Native and, this time, I also read the preface and intro to the novel. No, I don’t normally read the preface, I just scan through it. Ironically, the novel is structured much like a Greek tragedy. But unlike the deos ex machina, the machine god, who intervenes in Greek plays and brings the conflict to a successful resolution, Hardy’s novel has no such god, or intervention. (Lauren Walsh) His characters are left to their own resources to resolve conflict and reach a happy ending.
Hardy’s preface of the novel also includes John Keats’s fifth stanza of The Ode to Sorrow in Endymion.
From the ode to Sorrow in Endymion
John Keats (1795–1821)
I bade good morrow
And thought to leaver her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind:
I would deceive her,
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant, and so kind.
What makes his choice of poems particularly interesting, is that Keats was a romantic! Why did Hardy choose this poem and not one of his own? He, like the poet, appears to wallow in sorrow, yet there is a palpable feeling of acceptance and contentment of what is. Optimism, hardly!
So, having spent some time reflecting on my colleague’s suggestion that perhaps optimism is culture bound, I would agree. Our environment is a huge factor on how optimistic we are about life’s situations and outcomes.
What do you think?