American pessimism is on the rise. What can we do about it?

by Terrance J. Mintner

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

Zakaria focused on economics, arguing that a “profound sense of despair” among many Americans (“around three-quarters 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. Views vary according to political affiliation, age, race and ethnicity but one thing is clear: Americans are trending toward pessimism over optimism.

What’s going on?

It’s probably not much of a surprise. Where to begin? Political polarization, predictions of climate catastrophe, mass shootings, social media algorithms designed to spark outrage, a largely negative news cycle, the wars in Ukraine and Israel, and oh yes, the long-term social and health consequences of a global pandemic that we are only beginning to understand.

It all feels like a giant wrecking ball (with “pessimism” written across it) and I’m sorry to drop it on you. But we can also look at it as a call to action. Here are some areas to examine for possible remedies:

The media

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 “solutions-based journalism” as a counter to the media’s business model of negative clicks. 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 self-efficacy 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. We now have better knowledge of how algorithms are designed — to feed us more negativity, which we as humans are biased towards. Being aware of how social media works and taps into our cognitive biases could help us better resist becoming a “doomer.”

Social isolation

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 requirements — 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 the 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. Just walk into any bar or cafe and note how many people are glued to their devices instead of each other. If we are indeed social animals, it’s logical that genuine social interaction would give optimism a boost.

The good news is that a growing number of Americans are aware of these concerns. Some schools have moved to ban smartphones. Psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt believes the case for more schools following suit is stronger than ever. And just recently, Florida legislators have put forth a bill that would prohibit children under 16 from using social media, regardless of parental consent. Whether you agree or not, at least we’re talking about it.

National ideals

“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.

Terrance J. Mintner is a news editor and writer based in the U.S. Midwest. He writes a newsletter on Substack called Feral Brain (https://feralbrain.substack.com/).