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"The list of optimists, which also includes a list of such luminaries as the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, psychologist Steven Pinker, economist Max Roser and statistician Hans Rosling, has just grown longer with the publication of Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the realistic picture of the state of humanity."[1]

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Optimism is a mental attitude or world view that interprets situations and events as being best (optimized), meaning that in some way for factors that may not be fully comprehended, the present moment is in an optimum state. The concept is typically extended to include the attitude of hope for future conditions unfolding as optimal as well. The more broad concept of optimism is the understanding that all of nature, past, present and future, operates by laws of optimization along the lines of Hamilton's principle of optimization in the realm of physics. This understanding, although criticized by counter views such as pessimism, idealism and realism, leads to a state of mind that believes everything is as it should be, and that the future will be as well. A common idiom used to illustrate optimism versus pessimism is a glass with water at the halfway point, where the optimist is said to see the glass as half full, but the pessimist sees the glass as half empty.

The word is originally derived from the Latin optimum, meaning "best." Being optimistic, in the typical sense of the word, ultimately means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. This is usually referred to in psychology as dispositional optimism.

Researchers sometimes operationalize the term differently depending on their research, however. For example, Martin Seligman and his fellow researchers define it in terms of explanatory style, which is based on the way one explains life events. As for any trait characteristic, there are several ways to evaluate optimism, such as various forms of the Life Orientation Test, for the original definition of optimism, or the Attributional Style Questionnaire designed to test optimism in terms of explanatory style.

While the heritability of optimism is largely debatable, most researchers agree that it seems to be a biological trait to some small degree, but it is also thought that optimism has more to do with environmental factors, making it a largely learned trait. It has also been suggested that optimism could appear to be a hereditary trait because it is actually a manifestation of combined traits that are mostly heritable, like intelligence, temperament and alcoholism. Optimism may also be linked to health.

Philosophical optimism

Philosophers often link the concept of optimism with the name of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who held that we live in the best of all possible worlds, or that God created a physical universe that applies the laws of physics, which Voltaire famously mocked in his satirical novel Candide. The philosophical pessimism of William Godwin demonstrated perhaps even more optimism than Leibniz. He hoped that society would eventually reach the state where calm reason would replace all violence and force, that mind could eventually make matter subservient to it, and that intelligence could discover the secret of immortality. Much of this philosophy is exemplified in the Houyhnhnms of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.


The term "panglossianism" describes baseless optimism of the sort exemplified by the beliefs of Pangloss from Voltaire's Candide, which are the opposite of his fellow traveller Martin's pessimism and emphasis on free will. The phrase "panglossian pessimism" has been used to describe the pessimistic position that, since this is the best of all possible worlds, it is impossible for anything to get any better.

The panglossian paradigm is a term coined by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin to refer to the notion that everything has specifically adapted to suit specific purposes. Instead, they argue, accidents and exaptation (the use of old features for new purposes) play an important role in the process of evolution. Some other scientists however argue the implication that many (or most) adaptionists are panglossians is a straw man.

Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time Michael Shermer relates Frank J. Tipler to Voltaire's character Pangloss to show how clever people deceive themselves. Shermer explores the psychology of scholars and business men who give up their careers in their pursuit to broadcast their paranormal beliefs. In his last chapter, added to the revised version, Shermer explains that "smart people" can be more susceptible to believing in weird things.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Optimism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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