Miami Herald (Sunday)

What we can do about the rise in American pessimism

- BY TERRANCE MINTNER Terrance J. Mintner is a news editor and writer based in the U.S. Midwest.

“Americans are far too pessimisti­c about the future,” declared CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in an oped published last month.

Zakaria focused on economics, arguing that a “profound sense of despair” among many Americans (“around threequart­ers of those polled”) does not match up with positive stats – 5.2% growth in the third quarter of last year, dropping inflation, increasing wages and a robust tech sector.

Objective data aside, recent polling shows that Americans are worried about much more than the economy. They’re concerned about climate change, democracy, education, racial inequality and internatio­nal relations. Not to mention the long-term social and health consequenc­es of the COVID pandemic. Views vary according to political affiliatio­n, age, race and ethnicity but one thing is clear: Americans are trending toward pessimism over optimism.

It all feels like a giant wrecking ball. But we can also look at it as a call to action. Here are some areas to examine for possible remedies:

Traditiona­l news media is notorious for cranking out a steady flow of doom. “The journalist’s theory of change is that the best way to avert catastroph­e is to keep people focused on the potential for catastroph­e 24/7,” writes Amanda Ripley in a wonderful op-ed published last year titled “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me – or the product?”

Many people are experienci­ng “headline stress disorder,” a real thing, she claims. Upwards of 42% of Americans are simply tuning out the news.

Ripley believes we need a new brand of “solutionsb­ased journalism.” It would involve a good dose of hope, empathy for people on the other side of the political divide and a sense of agency.

Media companies should think more about creating news with these more human qualities in mind, she argues. “Feeling like you and your fellow humans can do something – even something small – is how we convert anger into action, frustratio­n into invention. That selfeffica­cy is essential to any functionin­g democracy.”

We also have to be more aware of social media’s ill effects. This is beginning to happen. In the last few years, researcher­s have raised red flags about the algorithmi­c structure of social media platforms.

Is it possible that our growing pessimism has some connection to loneliness? After the worst of the coronaviru­s pandemic – with its lockdowns and social distancing – Americans have struggled to come out of it. A Newsweek poll from a year ago showed that 42% of Americans felt less sociable than they did in 2019.

For many of us, the pandemic severed a sense of connection we had to others. Whether we wanted to or not, it felt like we turned the page on a past (and more sociable) life. But we shouldn’t blame all our social problems on the pandemic. New York

Times columnist David Brooks notes that we’ve been lonelier (and meaner) for some time, predating the pandemic. “The percentage of people who say they don’t have close friends has increased fourfold since 1990,” he writes.

We can debate reasons – political tribalism, economic insecurity, the decline of community life (civic organizati­ons and places of worship), and the breakup of traditiona­l marriage.

And yet it is hard not to place technology at the center. Smartphone­s have taken over many aspects of social life. If we are indeed social animals, it’s logical that genuine social interactio­n would give optimism a boost.

“The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experiment­al, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly,” former President John F. Kennedy once said.

Unbridled optimism – it is (or was?) a cliche of American life. Is it time to redefine our ideals?

We can choose to see our rising pessimism as merely a mood that will pass. As Zakaria suggests, there is ample data to help us see objectivel­y. The statistics tell us that overall we’re living in a pretty good time with a high degree of wealth, security and good health.

Or we can choose to rework our idea of pessimism itself. Is it absolute or conditiona­l? Can we do a half-and-half or uneven mixture – optimism with a pinch of pessimism or vice versa?

But zero optimism? Nah, that just isn’t in our DNA.

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