To my understanding, what Obama once meant was actually intended by Pinker and vice versa. Let me explain my point. In his inspiring memoirs, titled ‘The Audacity of Hope’ after the 19th century George Frederic Watts’ painting ‘Hope’, the former US President Barack Obama has logically emphasised the virtues of being daringly optimistic. And the fact that the poorly clad girl in his favourite art piece was shown as playing boldly on a lyre, with all its strings broken except one, symbolises in all essential respects pure optimism. Moreover, Obama’s narration of his personal anecdotes and events in his book points out his unfailing endeavours with unbroken confidence much the same way as the girl in the painting was putting her all-out efforts, listening to music, though it was faint. Then why the title ‘…. of Hope’?
On the other hand, the Canadian cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has been acclaimed for his commendable positive outlook, wrote in his 2018 masterpiece, ‘Enlightenment Now’, that Indians are far more optimistic than their western counterparts. But I presume that what he envisaged was only nearer in meaning to ‘hopeful’ but not exactly ‘optimistic’ as far as his idea of India is concerned.
It is just due to the simple reason that India is virtually lagging behind the West as per most of the performance indicators since pessimism itself is one of the stumbling blocks to its vision, despite the fact that there is no dearth of hope amongst its people. Therefore, it is the other way round for the West, where optimism is a catalyst for socioeconomic development and hope may perhaps be waning gradually with resultant feelings of loneliness and depression which are on the rise.
Of course, ‘hope’ played a pivotal role in human existence since ages and still continues to do so. Our ancestors used to exhort that one should always think and talk good. Because, as belief goes, Ashwin twins, the physician gods in Rigveda used to roam around in the sky, blessing the mortals on the earth with fulfilment of their wishes. Therefore, as written in the scriptures, the twin gods are called ‘Tathastu’ (be it so) devatas (gods). In Christian prayers too, the word ‘Amen’ is pronounced after blessings are sought. It means, ‘may it be so’.
But the problem arises when ‘hope’ is viewed interchangeably with ‘optimism’ and when the scope of the former gets restricted to the sense of ‘letter’ alone without ‘spirit’. This situation might have occurred earlier probably because of the later development of the concept of ‘optimism’ with stress on the ‘spirit’ of action besides thinking.
In olden days, the notion of hope was understood in different perspectives. The 19th century British philosopher Thomas Carlyle interpreted hope as an all-encompassing construct and referred to it as the one with which man basically lives. On a different note, others deemed it as a specific spiritual concept, which is devoid of materialistic connotations. Joseph Addison, a 17th century English poet, commented that the man who lives by hope will die by hunger, implying that unless the man struggles hard, hope cannot help him survive.
Over a period of long observation and fine-tuning, psychologists differentiated between hope and optimism assigning definitive definitions to them. American researchers Patricia Bruininks and Bertram Malle experimentally concluded that hope entails less personal control with less outcomes whereas optimism involves a high degree of personal control, yielding attainable outcomes. Princess Gabriele, a renowned German academic who belongs to the erstwhile noble family of Oettingen-Spielberg, investigated extensively as to how cultural and political factors influence optimistic behaviour. She propounded that optimism instils positive expectations so as to help one feel confident about a better future, with a consequent resolution of the element of uncertainty in life matters.
It is in this context that the recent findings of the New York-based cardiologist Dr Alan Rozanski assume relevance as regards to the Indian scenario where heart disease is the biggest killer. Dr Rozanski’s research linked greater optimism to lower risk of developing cardiac ailments. As a corollary to this linkage is another study done by Dr Peter Belmi of Virginia University, who showed that posh people think more confidently and so they perform better than others. Conversely, his discovery implied that the people in the lower strata of Indian society, who account for 70% of its population, tend to be more susceptible to lack of confidence, thereby meaning that their optimism levels are low. This attitudinal deficiency acts as a diabolical obstacle to their enthusiasm, affecting the national productivity adversely as a final blow on country’s economy.
Rational and Benevolent
Hence, India needs to pay attention, inter alia, to the psycho-spiritual aspects of its population. Often, we ignore this critical component while planning and formulating laws and policies. Since mindset invariably sets out as the driving force and conditioned habits decide the course of socioeconomic and political initiatives, suitable interventions are duly required to be put in place in accordance with rational and benevolent ethics. One of such crucial measures is to transform less rational ‘hope’ into more scientific ‘optimism’. Because, hope operates on the basis of faith whereas optimism works on logical principles. Hope is wish-oriented but optimism runs on calculated moves. Hope presupposes blind expectations and optimism forecasts practicable outcomes.
Therefore, the whole process of making India an overall optimistic nation boils down to a simple formula of simpler equations. Productivity is realised when opportunity meets effort and effort is an offshoot of personal control mechanism. Personal control emanates from confidence levels and confidence is embedded in optimism. That being the case, it is wiser to adhere to the dictum: whether hopeful or not, never fail to be optimistic.
(The author is former DG Cyber Crimes, Bhopal)