Cruel Optimism

Have you ever heard of the term ‘cruel optimism’?

I came across it recently when reading Johann Hari’s book ‘Stolen Focus’ and it had a huge impact on me. This idea was first coined by the historian Lauren Berlant.

Cruel optimism occurs, according to Hari, ‘when you take a really big problem with deep causes within our culture – like burnout, obesity, depression, or addiction – and you offer people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution. It sounds optimistic because you are telling them that the problem can be solved, and soon – but it is, in fact, cruel, because the solution that you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that for most people, it will fail.’

It’s the 21st century version of Marie Antoinette saying ‘let them eat cake’.

Hari gives the example of the commonly held belief that stress is:

‘something we impose on ourselves: If you just learn to think differently then your stress will melt away. Your stress comes from a failure to be mindful.

He goes on to point out the top causes of stress in the US – as identified by scientists at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in a major study:

✔ Lack of health insurance
✔ Constant fear of lay-offs
✔ Lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making
✔ Long working hours
✔ Low levels of organisational justice
✔ Unrealistic demands

Hari writes that he believes that ‘meditation and mindfulness CAN help people but for many people, they can’t just ‘think their way out of stress’.

He goes on to quote Ronald Purser – Professor of Management at San Francisco State University:

‘(cruel optimism deflects) attention away from the social causes of stress, like overwork, and it can quite quickly turn into a form of victim-blaming. It whispers: the problem isn’t the system – the problem is you’.

If the solution doesn’t work, the individual won’t blame the system – they will blame themselves. They will think they screwed up and weren’t good enough.

Hari paraphrases Purser: ‘the people who say that stress is just a matter of changing your thoughts are speaking from a privileged position. It’s easy to find serenity through meditation if you haven’t just lost your job and you’re wondering how you’re going to avoid being evicted next Tuesday.’

How this idea has changed my work:

✔ More and more now, I acknowledge the barriers that people face when they attempt to make positive changes as well as the opportunities that are open to them.

✔ As well as providing individual coping strategies, I acknowledge the times / situations where self-care is not enough

✔ I encourage people to reflect on the root causes of the problems that they are trying to solve so that they can differentiate between their own responsibility for change and that of the people / systems / culture around them.

Food for thought in these times?