“‘The important thing about imagination is that it gives you optimism,’ said Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Positive Psychology Center there.
His work is dedicated to studying human agency, which is predicated on efficacy, optimism and imagination. …
The hours spent fantasizing and daydreaming about future plans are valuable, Dr. Seligman said. They allow people to escape routine, and cultivate hope and resilience. …
‘Imagining the future — we call this skill prospection — and prospection is subserved by a set of brain circuits that juxtapose time and space and get you imagining things well and beyond the here and now,’ Dr. Seligman said. ‘The essence of resilience about the future is: How good a prospector are you?’
And that’s the case regardless of whether one’s imaginings of the future are over-the-top and unbelievable, or seemingly mundane. …
…Dr. April Toure, a psychiatrist who specializes in working with children and adolescents at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn [said] ‘Even though it’s not considered a core symptom of depression, the absence of hope is a common symptom.’ … Future thinking, or “the imagination and belief that something better is coming,” is crucial to getting through hard times.Tariro Mzezewa, “Go Ahead. Fantasize.” NY Times (January 16, 2021)
Some potentially useful skills and abilities of resilience.
I’ve been studying resilience over the past few months, and a few concepts with have been useful to me recently.
Putting It In Perspective
Seeing the bigger picture, and paying attention to those who have it worse than us, can help make our problems seem relatively minor.
For example, if you or your loved ones aren’t among the most vulnerable, and your priorities right now are non-life threatening, nor about serious economic hardship, it could be possible that they’re first-world problems. Trying to stick too stubbornly to your plans, being upset and inflexible about disruptions, and prioritizing personal gains or achievement goals might be over-investing in relatively minor concerns (over which you probably have limited control anyway).
It’s important for everyone to work together to flatten the curve of COVID-19. Personally, I’m relieved that employers, businesses, and organizations are temporarily closing to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. (This is a great example of society leading when government is flailing.) It’s a time for cooperation and making sacrifices for the vulnerable—as well as their caretakers and all health care workers.
Recognizing when to be optimistic, and what we can control.
When to use optimism
Everyday, we’re evaluating risks and making decisions.
I love optimism, optimists, and being optimistic whenever possible. Still, I recognize the limits of optimism. When grave consequences are at stake, be wary of being too optimistic. (Trump’s bluster and uninformed overconfidence are so disrespectful of people’s intelligence and the gravity of COVID-19.) If you’re making a decision that could impact health—yours or society’s as whole—err on the side of caution.
On the other hand, if you’re making a decision with lower consequences, choose optimism. For example, maybe you want to check in on an elderly neighbor but you’re worried about social awkwardness. In the best case scenario, it’s welcome and helpful, and you both feel good. In the worst case, it’ll be awkward, not that big a deal.
What we can control
As Karen Reivich, PhD and Andrew Shatté, PhD, define it in “The Resilience Factor,” being optimistic is to believe we control the direction of our lives.
There is a lot we can’t control right now—travel restrictions, closures of businesses and schools, and diverted plans.
So what can we control?
We can be creative in fostering connection despite the disruptions. For example, sharing photos of families instead of photos of empty shelves and commiseration memes (H/T artist Risa Puno).
We can try to use time at home productively, such as brainstorming ways to generate income. [Artists can work on applications, update websites and CVs, and improve art storage and inventory records. For example, I recently make boxes for art that I’ve been meaning to pack.]
Or, we can choose to see the restrictions on movement as a chance to rest, reflect, and practice self-care (such as using yoga instructional videos on YouTube instead of going to the gym), or doubling down on our support of neighbors and our communities.
For Reivich and Shatté, reaching out is both a skill of resilience as well as a use of resilience. One definition they offer is to enhance the positive aspects of life.
We are in an unprecedented time, when everyday brings scary news, anxiety is high, and everyone is coping with uncertainty. This is a recipe for poor mental health. Balance the negative with positive: connection, joy, humor, generosity. I love the videos of Italians singing from balconies, and Iranian doctors dancing. These are much-needed reminders of the human spirit and resilience.
On optimism, how we respond to setbacks, and contacting elected officials.
Kathryn Schulz’ “What Calling Congress Achieves,” (New Yorker, March 3, 2017) is an interesting, timely look at contacting representatives.
Some congressional staffers have said that calls are more effective than mail. Schulz argues otherwise:
Contrary to popular opinion, … written communications are an effective way of communicating with Congress…. “Everything is read, every call and voice mail is listened to,” Isaiah Akin, the deputy legislative director for Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, told me.
…According to a 2015 [Congressional Management Foundation] survey of almost two hundred senior congressional staffers, when it comes to influencing a lawmaker’s opinion, personalized e-mails, personalized letters, and editorials in local newspapers all beat out the telephone.
Im the same article, Schulz framed sustaining resistance and taking action without guaranteed results.
The deluge of constituent pressure, by contrast, is a viable long-term strategy, but only if it is a long-term strategy—that is, only if those doing it choose to sustain it. That would mean persevering in the face of both short-term defeats and the potentially energy-sapping influence of time itself.
Such perseverance is by no means impossible; here, too, political causality is complex. Setbacks can as easily stoke as sap, movements may grow as well as wither, and every critical mass has, of necessity, been built from a subcritical one. Moreover, and luckily for democracy, none of us requires a guaranteed outcome in order to act. We all do plenty of things without knowing if or when or how or how much they will work: we say prayers, take multivitamins, give money to someone on Second Avenue who looks like she needs it. So, too, with calling and e-mailing and writing and showing up in congressional offices: it would be good to know that these actions will succeed, but it suffices to know that they could.
How we respond to setbacks is what distinguishes optimists, according to positive psychologist Martin Seligman. A few drawings in my Positive Signs series are about Seligman’s “explanatory style” concept.
What this means, to me, is this: This political regression is not permanent. Take a long view—we’re at a moment in time in a long tradition of resistance. It’s our turn to continue fighting a hard-won, oft-defended march towards full equality and enfranchisement. This political chaos is not pervasive. DJT, his administration, and his white nationalist supporters are anomalies. They can continue to repeat their lies until they’re blue in the face, but most aren’t buying it. We have to continue to see the good in people—other Americans, our legislators who are resisting, immigrants, refugees, and so on. However, when it comes to personalization, I think we should manage what, how, when, and why we personalize things. We can’t internalize hate and outrage and let it immobilize us. But we must take it personally when one of us—our allies, and the most vulnerable—are attacked, to fight back while we are strong, and call upon others when we need it.
Rather than consume news and be overwhelmed, it’s empowering to focus on what we can do. Schulz underscores the relevance of exercising our agency and our Constitutional right to contact legislators.
And at this particular moment, when our First Amendment freedoms are existentially threatened—when the President himself has, among other things, sought to curb press access and to discredit dissent—we also act on them to insist that we can.
Probably only tangentially-related side note: I loved this compelling, long essay about letters written to Obama and White House mail system that handled them:
Recent points of reference about psychology, anxiety, and the need to be intentional about optimism and humor. Plus artworks made when I was first learned about positive psychology at the beginning of the Obama presidency.
We live in a world where there is a constant feed from social media, the news, etc., of things that can scare us, and we become so anxious because human beings are designed to be sensitized to dangerous stuff. You get a bad review as a writer, you remember it for 10 years. You get 100 good reviews, you forget them all. You say hello to 100 people in a city, and it doesn’t mean anything to you. One racist comment passes by, it sticks with you a decade. We keep the negative stuff because it’s the negative stuff that’s going to—potentially—kill us. That fin in the water—maybe it is a shark. That yellow thing behind a tree—maybe it is a lion. You need to be scared. But contemporary culture in Pakistan, just like in America, is continuously hitting us with scary stuff, and so we are utterly anxious.
I think that it’s very important to resist that anxiety, to think of ways of resisting the constant inflow of negative feelings—not to become depoliticized as a result, but to actually work actively to bring into being an optimistic future. For me, writing books and being someone who is politically active is part of that. I don’t want to be anxious in my day-to-day life; I want to try to imagine a future I’d like to live in and then write books and do things that, in my own small way, make it more likely that that future will come to exist.
—Author Mohsin Hamid (“Pakistani Author Mohsin Hamid And His Roving ‘Discontent’,’ Fresh Air, March 9, 2017)
…one of the offshoots of the rise of Trump has been to rob many liberals of their sense of humor. To pay close attention to the news is to trap oneself in a daily cycle of outrage, self-righteousness, a pained recognition of the inelegance of that self-righteousness, and, finally, a feeling of futility. Part of what made the Women’s March so powerful was its scenes of comedy, not simply the signs that mocked the President but those that recognized the joyousness in the very of act of protest.
…Constant vigilant outrage is not only exhausting, and eventually deflating, but it’s ill suited to liberal culture, which is suffused with a healthy dose of self-awareness, self-mockery, and even self-loathing. There’s a reason conservatives control talk radio, with all its grim certitude, and liberals run comedy, which is characterized by, among others things, ambivalence.
—Ian Crouch, “This Is The Future That Liberals Want” Is The Joke That Liberals Need, NewYorker.com,
Recommended: an essay on freeing oneself from energy-sapping forces. It’s inspired by turning 60, but the call to preserve one’s attention for the truly worthwhile and to care for one’s emotional well-being applies at any age.
“Young(er) women, take this to heart: Why waste time and energy on insecurity? … I’m happy to have a body that is healthy, that gets me where I want to go…
What matters most is the work. Does it give you pleasure, or hope? Does it sustain your soul? …I’m too old for the dark forces, for hopelessness and despair…
Toxic people? Sour, spoiled people? I’m simply walking away… Take a pass on bad manners, on thoughtlessness, on unreliability, on carelessness and on all the other ways people distinguish themselves as unappealing specimens. Take a pass on your own unappealing behavior, too: the pining, yearning, longing and otherwise frittering away of valuable brainwaves…
My new mantra is liberating… I spare myself a great deal of suffering… goodbye to all that has done nothing but hold us back.”
My dear friend ET has been collaborating with genius Bay Area artists and activists to lay the groundwork for a new, optimistic organization. And they’re launching now!
Check out their Arts & Activism Quarterly; it features an interview with moi about the nineties, activism, and art, and includes tons of orgs and people that have inspired me.
It also hosts the beautifully-shot, poignant trailer for “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” by Joe Talbot.
Talbot is among the many artists that will be featured in the Society’s kickoff party this Saturday night. It’s where I’d be, if I were in SF this weekend.
Sue me; I’m feeling optimistic, too. Before we dive into the season of gluttony and shopping mayhem, here’s where I’ve put my money, and if you are able, maybe you can too:
- The Lab’s triumphant return spearheaded by Dena Beard. Keeping SF weird, loud, and experimental.
- May Day Space, a cultural worker/education/organiging space led by a diverse crew in Bushwick.
- The Society, of course! Become a member! We won’t concede SF so easily!
- W.A.G.E. for Work. Six days left to go in their campaign to bring justice for all artists!