I am not one to complain (well, not too much), but writing this column can be depressing. This is because it demands a constant vigilance of the news, and newspapers are gloomy. The adage that bad news sells is true. So I was delighted to stumble across the website South Africa: The Good News. The site is dedicated to highlighting good-news stories and is littered with helpful headings, such as ‘Good-news crime stories’. This section, which cheered me up by its mere paradoxical title, highlights areas in which crime has decreased. Overall, the site features stories written from a positive perspective. For example, one article, in the spirit of seeing the glass half-full, points out that South Africa is considered the third-least corrupt country in Africa. Now, is that not a better way of talking about corruption than saying that South Africa is 46th in the world on a corruption-perception index, or asking why we are not the least-corrupt country in Africa? The site also got me thinking about statistics and how they have become little tools of terror rather than ways of quelling fears. We have all become accustomed to hearing statistics being used to highlight things to worry about, even though most of the time we have no idea what statistics really mean. The media, food manufacturers and scientists bombard us with them all the time, usually to scare us into buying something.
For example, according to the National Safety Council, you have a 1 in 22-million chance of dying from the melting of your nightwear, but only a 1 in 95-million chance of dying of a snake bite in the US. So, realistically, the chances of being fried alive in your pyjamas are slim and the chances of being bitten by a deadly snake even more remote. Even so, I suspect that someone in the world is rushing out to buy flame-retardant pyjamas and knee-high snake-proof boots just to be sure.
Sadly, pessimism is everywhere. Psychologist Martin Seligman has criticised academia by noting that, in the last three decades, journals published 46 000 psychological papers on depression and only 400 on joy. Optimism has little hope of flourishing in a world where disasters are the lifeblood of the media. This is exemplified by the BBC’s recent decision to describe headline news items each day as their ‘top stories’. The ‘top stories’ caption appears in red letters at the bottom of the screen, lest there be any doubt that bombings, starvation, civil unrest and political repression are anything less than ‘top’. Peter Ustinov said that the point of living and of being an optimist is to be foolish enough to believe the best is yet to come. This discouraging view of optimism dominates the planet, even though, according to some experts, optimism is good for you. Vatche Bertekian, a stress-management specialist, notes that optimism increases your immune system’s ability to fight off diseases.
If you need help, you can even hire, through feedyouroptimism.com, speakers referred to as ‘professional optimists’ to cheer you up and show you the optimistic way to health and happiness.
Then again, optimists, according to some psychologists, are more prone to risk-taking behaviour, as they always expect things to work out for the better. In other words, you might be so carefree and unfazed by the consequences of your actions that you end up driving too fast, wrapping your car around a tree, thereby bringing your happy little world to a premature end.
It seems you just can’t win. Pessimism is too depressing, and optimism’s apparent health benefits are offset by its tendency to make us a little too laid back about danger. So remember the words of British comedian Bill Bailey next time someone asks you if you are an optimist – just answer: “I hope so!”
Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, May 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 12 May 2006.