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What are the functions of optimism in modern societies? How is hope culturally transmitted? What values and attitudes does it reflect? This book explores how and why powerful institutions propagate 'cultures of optimism' in different domains, such as politics, work, the family, religion and psychotherapy.




This book is about how institutions propagate optimism and hope. It does not itself advance optimistic visions of the future, nor does it set out to challenge contemporary pessimism.1 Much less does it seek to join the ranks of those advocating ‘positive thinking’, where pessimism is often seen as moral failure or weakness of character.2 On the other hand, it does not launch an assault, as many others have done, on the ‘ideology’ of optimism, charging those who profess it with a failure to acknowledge either the scale of human suffering or the injustices that continue to produce or exacerbate it.3 These are a well-rehearsed positions, to which little can be usefully added.

Oliver Bennett

1. The Optimism Imperative

In a letter to the Swiss theologian, Elie Bertrand, in February 1756, the French writer and philosopher, Voltaire, described optimism as ‘a counsel of despair, a cruel philosophy with a consoling name’.1 He was not using the term in the sense to which we are now accustomed, that is, to denote a psychological attitude, but in the sense of optimism as a philosophical position. This had been first expounded by the German philosopher, Gottfried Leibnitz, who had argued that we inhabited the best of all possible worlds because God, being all-powerful and all-knowing, was incapable of creating anything less.2 This was the doctrine that Voltaire satirised in Candide, which he wrote two years after his letter to Bertrand, creating in Dr Pangloss a figure that would forever stand as a convenient referent for mindless optimism.3

Oliver Bennett

2. Optimistic Democracy: The Politics of Hope

If societies cannot function without cultures of optimism, as I have suggested in the last chapter, then we might expect to find such cultures promoted at the most general level within the political systems under which we live; and, indeed, we do not have to look very far to see that virtually all forms of secular politics, authoritarian or democratic, are conducted with repeated reference to the prospects of a better future. These futures, of course, can express strongly conflicting values and visions, illustrating in the clearest possible terms the relative nature of optimism that I discussed in the previous chapter (socialist utopias, for example, being the stuff of neo-liberal nightmares, and vice-versa). Yet, however much the ‘content’ of these desired futures might differ, it is invariably wrapped up in the same ‘form’ of optimistic expectation. As the American philosopher, Richard Rorty, has observed:

Modern, literate, secular societies depend on the existence of reasonably concrete, optimistic and plausible political scenarios … To retain social hope, members of such a society need to be able to tell themselves a story about how things might get better, and see no insuperable obstacle to this story’s coming true.


Oliver Bennett

3. Optimism at Work: Human Resource Management

The promotion of optimism at work, particularly, though not exclusively, in the United States, has in recent years featured prominently in the never-ending organisational quest to increase productivity and secure competitive advantage. The key agents of this are employers and managers, operating within the general area of what is now usually referred to as human resource management (HRM). Indeed, according to some analysts, the nurturing of an optimistic attitude within the workforce has now become central to the HRM function. Michelle Conlin, for example,


senior writer on working life and the labour market, noted in 2009 that:

Most human resource managers base their motivational policies on a simple psychological premise: that optimistic engaged employees are more productive and hence can help their employers grow and make more money. Put simply, workplace optimism, if nurtured properly, can be a competitive advantage.


Oliver Bennett

4. Great Expectations: Parenting, Optimism and the Child

If we consider the place of optimism in the raising of children, we quickly see that it has two distinct, though not unrelated, dimensions: optimism towards the child and optimism within the child. These dimensions can be thought of as exogenous (coming from without) and endogenous (growing within). In the case of the former, agencies external to the child, of which parents are the most obvious example, can often be observed to hold positive expectations about many aspects of a child’s future. Typically, these will be in the areas of general development, education, employment, values, sociability and so on. Such expectations can be explicitly articulated, they can be concealed, or they can remain unconscious and unadmitted; and, of course, they reflect wider societal influences, such as nationality, class, economic status, political ideology and religion. All of these factors come to bear on what I call ‘the parenting complex’, that network of influences with which parenthood is necessarily embroiled. I discuss this further below. The optimistic expectations that this complex produces are, needless to say, as diverse as the values they reflect; and they frequently come into conflict with one another. Children are, after all, one of the key battlegrounds of the future; they are, as the cultural critic, Neil Postman, puts it, ‘the living messages we send to a time we will not see’.1

Oliver Bennett

5. Models of Salvation: Religion, Eschatology and Hope

The Oxford theologian, Alistair McGrath, has observed that definitions of religion show a marked tendency to depend on the particular purposes and prejudices of individual scholars.1 However, whilst no universally accepted definition has emerged, McGrath suggests that that there is at least now some measure of agreement that religion involves belief and behaviour linked with a supernatural realm of divine or spiritual beings. This is consistent with the useful definition of religion offered by the sociologist, Steve Bruce, which I am going to follow here. Bruce defines religion as ‘beliefs, actions and institutions predicated on the existence of entities with powers of agency (that is, gods) or impersonal powers possessed of moral purposes (the Hindu notion of Karma, for example), which can set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs’.2

Oliver Bennett

6. Optimism and the Self: From Mind-Cure to Psychotherapy

In his history of the first hundred years of psychotherapy, Robin. L. Cautin describes psychotherapy as ‘the treatment of emotional or physical ills by psychological means, implying a belief in the influence of the mind on the mind and of the mind on the body’.1 This is the broad definition I shall follow here, encompassing as it does the full range of psychological therapies that are promoted today. It has the advantage of including everything from full-blown psychoanalysis, which is the most open-ended and time-intensive form of therapy, to cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), aimed at changing specific attitudes or behaviours within a relatively short space of time. It also has the advantage of allowing us to side-step the often fine distinctions between different forms of therapy (for example, between psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy) and to focus instead on certain elements that are common to all or most of them.2 In this way, we can avoid being too distracted by the specific theoretical or clinical orientations of these many different practitioners, whether they describe themselves as analysts, therapists or counsellors, and to focus instead on therapy as an institution and on the role it plays in the promotion of optimism.

Oliver Bennett

7. Culture(s) of Optimism

If there is one thing that emerges clearly from the preceding chapters, it is that the institutional promotion of hope and optimism is no isolated phenomenon. We have seen it in operation in the functioning of democratic politics; within the world of work; with children and families; in the practices of religion; and in the burgeoning domain of psychotherapy. Whilst this by no means exhausts the sites on which the promotion of optimism can be observed — think, for example, of medical science, technological development or the world of sport — it still encompasses a large part of both the public and private spheres. Indeed, it begins to look like a significant, though rarely observed, cultural phenomenon (culture being understood here in its broadest sense as a cluster or set of attitudes, values and behaviours). We might even say that not only do our institutions produce myriad cultures of optimism but that collectively they also feed in to an overarching culture of optimism.

Oliver Bennett


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