Gun violence, ISIS, the Election; there’s no shortage of bad news to suggest the sky could be falling in. But, when the news greets us with tragedy on a daily basis how can we still get our optimistic groove on?
Cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker may have the answer. In his 2012 book, the Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker points to the reason we may find ourselves convinced things really are getting worse: our expectations have outpaced reality. That’s to say, the world is getting better but we have such high expectations around the rate things should be improving that we’re unable to see the progress that’s been made.
Take bullying as an example, says Pinker. Back when he was a child, and when you and I were just wee ones as well, bullying was a standard rite of passage. The idea of the U.S president giving a televised speech speaking out against bullying’s evils would have been unthinkable. But in 2011, that’s exactly what Barack Obama did. Think too of the world’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, chimes in British writer, Oliver Burkeman. “To be upset by images of desperate Syrian refugees, you must first believe that Syrian refugees are as human as you are — a stance that wouldn’t have been a given in…. centuries past.”
What Pinker and Burkeman are suggesting then is that we’re despondent because we care more than we’ve ever cared. Or, in other words, we’ve never been more empathetic.
Now, that’s an optimistic thought. But if there’s room in your life to care more (and I always believe there is), here’s a few pointers:
Step 1: Go easy on yourself. Recognize that caring about others is a vulnerable choice to make. As researcher and therapist Dr. Brené Brown points out, to connect with the pain of another we have to connect with something in ourselves that recognizes that same feeling.
“We’re despondent because we care more than we’ve ever cared. Or, in other words, we’ve never been more empathetic.”
Step 2: When someone comes to you with their problems, forget about changing, fixing or mitigating their pain. Concentrate instead on connecting to that person. Simply tell them how grateful you are that they risked to telling you how they’re feeling. To quote Dr. Brown once more, when a person you are with is going through some dark clouds, reach out and gently tell them,” I don’t even know what to say right now, but I’m just so glad you told me. Because the truth is, rarely can a fix-it response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
Step 3: Get over yourself. When we confine our problems to our personal ones we limit ourselves. If we can see beyond ourselves, we can serve the big picture.
And, ladies and gentleman, when we start serving the big picture, we start playing the big game which is exactly what this mad world is asking for right now.