Optimism: Where did it go and can we get it back?

I was interviewed yesterday for a really interesting and timely article in The Scotsman Newspaper.

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Published Date: 23 January 2009
(c) The Scotsman Newspaper

By Jenny Haworth

THE Great Depression gave us the jet engine and the electric razor, and the First World War provided the inspiration for some of the most moving poetry ever written.

It is only necessary to look at the innovations and creativity born out of hardship to realise times of difficulty can have positive results.

Historically, depressions have forced businesses to step up their game to survive, and some of the world’s best literature has come from the minds of tortured souls suffering through hardship.

It is also claimed that difficult times can pull communities together, enabling people to forge stronger relationships, which in turn leads to more permanent satisfaction than that created by the quest for greater wealth and the desire for the latest gadget or fashion item.

According to experts, the current recession and anxiety could bring benefits that should make us positive, and fill us with optimism.

Mark Desvaux, an expert in social change, thinks the recession will help remind people what really makes them happy.

“When people are so consumed by money it can add great perspective to have to deal with a financial crisis,” he said.

“We can all get tied up with chasing the golden pound during the boom times, so that we start to lose sight of what happiness is all about.”

He added: “I think that during hard times the poor get poorer but the rich get even poorer.” (1)

Desvaux thinks we will see “community mobilisation”, similar in some ways to the war effort.

“When something like a war happens, the entire country mobilises itself. In times of hardship we get community mobilisation.

“When times get hard like this, we can do small things on a local level that can make a difference. When times get hard, people pull together.”

David Varson, a positive psychology coach, agrees that people could rediscover what brings happiness.

“People set themselves goals, maybe for career advancement and better salaries, but when they get there they are disappointed,” he said.

“Instead they find that if they focus on their values in life they are happier. This involves becoming more mindful of what you are doing each day – the moment-to- moment experience.

“Perhaps spending a bit more time with your family, or just enjoying the time you have with them more.”


The Great Depression altered consumer demand and forced the pace of innovation. Businesses had to innovate or die. The same is likely to happen again. In the US new developments included the car radio, the supermarket, the cotton tampon, and the Monopoly board game. In Britain inventions such as television and radar led to a boom in consumer goods that arrived out of the austerity of the 1930s.


The best literature has been written in times of hardship, often by people who are miserable. This has also been the case with other creative arts such as music and theatre. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, all wrote in climates of adversity. Dostoyevski would hardly have written Crime and Punishment if he did not live in the troubled political and social context of 19th century Russia. Wilfred Owen could not have composed his moving war poetry without experiencing the torment of the First World War.

Stronger community spirit

It is not unusual to hear nostalgic comments about society pulling together during the war, forming a strong bond of community spirit to cope with the difficulties life presented. Indeed, last year research in the British Medical Journal reported that happiness can spread from person to person through societies, almost like a virus. In a study of 5,000 individuals it was found that happiness spread through close relationships such as friends, siblings and next-door-neighbours.

Less materialistic society

During the past decade of wealth many people have wanted for little. However, there is little to suggest that has made us happy. Once a child has one computer games console, he will probably want the upgraded model when it comes on the market. Fashion has changed rapidly during times of prosperity, enticing people to spend to fit new trends. The current economic downturn could cut the cycle of materialism that breeds dissatisfaction.

Good for the environment

The environment will benefit if we have less money to spend on foreign travel or long car journeys. Instead of holidaying overseas there is already some evidence that there is a growth in holidays closer to home. As well as helping cut greenhouse gas emissions from plane journeys, this could boost local economies.

Focus on the little things

Without large quantities of spare cash, people may have to get their satisfaction from small things in life. Research has suggested these can often bring greater happiness than material wealth. It could be spending time with family and friends, catching up on a hobby such as gardening or reading, or just sending a letter to a friend.

New US president

Barack Obama has just become US president, bringing fresh hope to the world. The inauguration of the new president has been welcomed across the globe for his stance on the economy, world conflicts and climate change. Now he has the tough task of not leaving us disappointed.

Lots to look forward to

Scots have so much to look forward to that it is difficult to imagine we can be miserable for long. The Year of Homecoming will bring a host of activities, and who can fail to be excited living in the country that hosts the best international arts festival in the world, has some of the most incredible wild landscapes and a culture that has spread events such as Burns Night across the globe.

It won’t last forever

There is not a single expert who has suggested the current economic climate will be permanent. Depressions, we are told, are always cyclical. There will be another boom, and with light at the end of the tunnel, it is difficult to remain miserable for long.

Many are worse off

It may sound like the sort of cliche spoken by parents trying to get children to finish their plate of food at dinner time, but there are many who are worse off than us.

We are fortunate to live in a country with a welfare state that will not allow widescale descent into poverty.

Signs of world-leading projects

There are already signs of invention in Scotland that could help to pull us out of the recession. One example is in the area of renewable energy. Tidal and wave projects that could not only make Scotland rich, but also give us a secure and cheaper energy supply. Just yesterday a new world-beating scheme was given the go ahead, in the form of a large wave farm off the Western Isles.

Good for our diet

Digging for victory is not everybody’s cup of tea but some people may respond to the current economic difficulties by getting out into gardens and allotments to grow their own vegetables. This would help provide a healthy diet. It would also cut down on food miles, benefiting the environment. Already there have been reports of a take off in demand for allotments in Scotland.

More exercise

One way to cut down on a costly expense is to leave the car at home and walk instead. Environmental groups say leaving the car at home is not only healthy, it makes the streets safer and benefits the environment.

Wealth does not equal happiness

There is evidence to suggest happiness is not linked to financial wealth but to relationships with loved ones and friends, religious involvement, parenthood, marital status, age, and proximity to other happy people. There have even been suggestions that financial wealth should not be used as a measure of success of a nation, but instead public happiness should be the basis. Research has shown that although on average richer nations tend to be happier than poorer ones, beyond an average GDP/head of about £11,000 a year, average income makes little difference to the average happiness.


Humans are resilient because they respond well to adversity and do not dwell on misery. Whether out of determination, boredom or strength, they respond by taking action to improve their situation. According to expert Mark Desvaux, people go through phases, starting with denial, then anger, then depression, and finally it leads to action. “It’s then that you start to get perspective and you realise there are still people far worse off than you. We start to act because otherwise we will just shut down.”


This year there will be a landmark conference in Copenhagen that should help nations globally reach a deal to tackle climate change. This could help provide the first step towards a solution to one of the biggest threats to the future of the planet, and help lift anxiety about the issue from many shoulders.

Face to face interaction

People are likely to spend more time chatting face-to-face in times of financial difficulty, even if just to save on the phone bill. Experts say this can also stem from a greater tendency to borrow from neighbours, rather than to buy a new item. This can rekindle friendships and lead to a tighter community.


To a certain extent the credit crunch is acting as an equaliser. With most people in the same boat – worried about money and the future – it is no longer a social stigma to refuse a dinner invitation and suggest a home cooked meal at a friend’s house instead. According to social change expert Mark Desvaux, “People don’t have to try to keep up a facade of the high and affluent. It almost becomes unfashionable to spend money.”

Greater empathy

With neighbours and friends losing jobs and struggling to cope, people are likely to develop a greater sense of empathy, according to Mark Desvaux. “People start to hear of friends in situations of difficulty and as a result it brings empathy back into people’s lives.”


Bizarre as it seems, comedy regularly comes from hardship and is also enjoyed by audiences in situations of difficulty. Stand-up has even become a hit in Gaza in recent years. This suggests that people like to be cheered up in times of adversity, even in a war zone. This is likely to lead to increased creativity.


(1) This means that the rich get proportionally poorer.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.4000saturdays.com/blog/optimism-where-did-it-go-and-can-we-get-it-back/


  1. Great piece, Mark. I love your emphasis on community mobilisation. It’s evident already here in Cambridge and in so many other places.

    We don’t choose our circumstances but we choose our response to them. Like you say, we can either shut down or act. Taking action is so much more fulfilling.

    Thanks for the continual inspiration.


  2. I love your optimistic thinking in this article! Keep shining, Mark!

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