Looking past Christmas and beginning the new year, we are filled with today’s word. In the Act I, Scene III of his play, The Foresters, Alfred Tennyson, through Robin Hood, writes, “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘It will be happier’”. Looking forward to 2019, we are not just hopeful for a greater sense of happiness for us and those we care about; but are filled with a sense that everything will improve. It is an unbridled sense of optimism, but what exactly does that mean and how did we get to be this way?
Starting with the word, optimism entered English from the French optimisme, which itself comes from the Modern Latin optimum, meaning ‘the greatest good’. While we may think of the word just as having a positive outlook, it actually began as the philosophical conclusion of Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz, who proposed the idea that, of our all possible variations that could have been created, the actual world was deliberately created because it could produce the most good with the least possible cost of evil. The word first appears in the 1809 work, Letters from a Late Eminent Prelate to One of His Friends, written by Bishop Richard Hurd using a letter from 1759 written by his friend, Bishop William Warburton, which stated: “The professed design is to ridicule the Optimism, not of Pope, but of Leibnitz.”
If all of this seems rather heady, abstract, and philosophical, that’s because it is; however, so as not to get too deep into theology and philosophy, simply think of it as the opposite of pessimism, meaning the worst possible scenario.
Additionally, looking at the contrast in Robert Southey’s 1797 work, Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal, we can see that optimism is being made the comparative best to a less-than-ideal Spain, as he writes that: “Portugal is the best part of Spain… So much for the beauty and optimism of Portugal.”
Branching out from everything being the best possible to one thing being the comparative best, it’s not too long before there are instances of hoping and assuming the best, which can be seen a short 20 years after Southey, in Maria Edgeworth’s Tales of Fashionable Life (1812), where she notes: “Said she, ‘Women have not always the liberty of choice, and therefore they can’t be expected to have always the power of refusal.’ The mother, satisfied with her convenient optimism, got into her carriage.”
The word’s definition and evolution of usage are one thing, but what makes us optimistic even when we know we shouldn’t be? For example, being realistic, most of us understand that the new gym membership and diet are not going to be sustainable, so why are we optimistic? As it turns out, not only are our brains wired to be optimistic, but there’s a lot to be said for the power of positive thinking. Discussing the topic, Curiosity.com remarks:
“science and medical professionals have discovered that an optimistic state of mind lowers stress and can improve physical well-being. In patients with life-threatening or terminal illnesses, studies have shown that those with more optimistic perspectives were more likely to follow doctor’s orders when it came to making lifestyle changes to reduce future risks. Conversely, those with negative world-views were more likely to succumb to their illness within months after treatment than more optimistic peers.”
With a new year, we have a chance for a new beginning, and we should be optimistic about reaching our goals, but, with optimism as well as any diet and exercise program, the key is moderation.