The Optimist’s Handbook

I’m tempted to begin with an enumeration of all the things that drag my spirits down lately. We’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, no vaccine or cure has been developed yet, we’re still staying home and wearing masks to flatten the curve and make sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed. And all that has taken a huge toll on the economy, which depends on people going out and spending money. Here in the U.S., as with everything else, it’s turned into a political thing. And the political thing in this country right now is like a vast sea of toxic sludge, a tarpit just under our feet trying to suck us down.

So it’s been hard to remain optimistic. But I’m determined to find my way back to my native optimism. Maybe this will be something I can post to help other people find their way out of the quagmire too.

1. Look for the helpers

This is a lesson from Mr. Rogers, who said that’s what his mother taught him: whenever there’s a disaster, look for the people who are trying to make things better. Right now, those people are everywhere. Researchers looking for vaccines and treatments, entertainers putting on free online performances to make staying at home easier, healthcare workers showing up every day, government and nonprofit and corporate workers getting money and supplies to people who need it, teachers reaching out to their students, not to mention all the people keeping the Internet running and doing the ordinary jobs like stocking grocery stores. When we all heard about shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) for healthcare workers, videos immediately went up showing how to sew masks, fabric stores gave away free kits to make them with; schools and cities with 3-D printers geared up to make face shields and other equipment; and factories retooled from manufacturing cars to manufacturing PPE.

2.  Look to the past

Getting a historical perspective can make the present seem less disastrous. It’s sort of like looking at those stock market charts that show trends over a hundred years or more—even though there are plenty of downturns, the overall trend is up. Steven Pinker’s books go into detail on many aspects of human progress, many ways life is better now than in the past. Reading history about terrible times in the past can put today’s events in perspective and might suggest how civilization can weather the storms and come out better than before.

For example—the Black Death killed off half the population of Europe, but in the aftermath the old feudal system died out. The U.S. Civil War killed over six hundred thousand people, but it ended legalized slavery in this country.

For a less lethal example, read Dickens, or Henry Mayhew’s London Characters and Crooks. We haven’t solved poverty or homelessness by any means, but we don’t have debtor’s prisons or a population who can only eat if they’ve been able to find and sell enough cigar ends, dogs’ dung, and other garbage to be able to buy a bit of oatmeal. 

3. Turn down the negative voices.

COVID or no, the news is always a downer. Always. If it bleeds, it leads, and all that. Conflict and disharmony, crime and malfeasance, doom, defeat, and despair. And it’s on all day all the time. Normal day-to-day living isn’t news; by definition the news is reporting on the unusual, the novel. You might see a story about the guy on the corner who’s making meth in his garage (yikes!) but all the rest of the people on the street who are just living their lives are never going to be in the news. 

So, limit tv news time—say, one show a day—or cut it out completely and get the news from the paper or the radio. That’s plenty to stay up to date. And choose a news source that isn’t constantly screaming and trying to get people upset and angry. 

Same goes for social media. Block the friends and/or sites that do nothing but complain and post bad news. Cut back on the number of times you check social media, and the length of time you spend on it. 

4. Fill up with good stuff

Seek out the positive—like looking for the helpers, but focusing more on the people working towards a better future. For me, the absolute number one place to boost optimism is a science fair, and the king of those fairs is the International Science and Engineering Fair (find it at; the International Society for Biomechanics lists other big ones here. Depending on your interests, you could check out the Long Now Foundation, a May 2020 Forbes article listing of 50 female futurists, NASA, Citizens for Global Solutions, the United Nations, 4-H, or the League of Women Voters

Read, watch, and listen to upbeat things, like Eric Barker’s Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog, your personal choice of self-help books (I like Gretchen Rubin’s approach; a friend prefers the Bad-Ass books), amazing documentaries about strange birds and resourceful camera work, and cheerful podcasts like Reading Glasses.

Study philosophy. Eric Barker’s latest blog post uses lessons from the Stoics to suggest ways to get through hard times. Read the classics. Dredge up that old list of books you intended to read someday, and read one of them.

Read Terry Pratchett. Watch comedies and action movies. Do something creative like coloring, gardening, or knitting. Resurrect an activity you enjoyed as a child, like jigsaw puzzles. Hang out with people who make you feel good; empower yourself to speak up to Debbie Downers.

5. Do something

 Do things you think are valuable and useful. Forgive yourself for not doing as much as some people do; appreciate them and give them money and all the support you can provide, but don’t feel you have to uproot your own life and move to Africa and run a boarding school like my friend Terry did. Appreciate your own contributions, which might be as minor as staying home and not spreading the disease to other people. 

6. Memento mori

Life is impermanent. We are all dying from the moment of our birth. Everyone does it. In the meantime, we have sunshine and rain, hummingbirds and herons, apples and cabbages, stories and songs. Not to sound all Pollyanna or anything, but in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson,

The world is so full of a number of things

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Cover of The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, 1997 Folio Society edition
Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.