As a society, we’ve long been heading down the path of negativity, irony and nihilism – we’re so caught up in what’s bad, and what’s to be abhorred and what’s to be attacked that we rarely have time to look up and smile anymore. With the massive amount of information we have access to online, it can be tough to hide our cynicism and negativity. However, there’s a difference between all of the attack pieces you see online and the wealth of philosophy and literature you get to read while pursuing a liberal arts degree. For one, this is usually literature and philosophy that isn't so concerned with dwelling on the negatives and hiding behind irony.
While it may sound like a tired cliché or a bad self-help book title, positive thinking and optimism isn’t about being naïve, it’s about being realistic and knowing that while things may be bad, to become jaded, cynical and savagely ironic does nothing but further the problem.
Honesty, Sentiment and Truth
If you’re attending a small liberal arts college, chances are you’re more than just a little interested in the world of art. Much of what art is focused on, and indeed some say what great art is entirely focused on, is the honesty and truth of the human condition. This is why we have such an aversion to cliché or dishonest art and why in the last few decades, irony has been the voice of choice for many artists -because irony was originally the opposite of cliché. These days however, the two are more similar than people care to acknowledge. Daring to actually say what you feel, or engage with things emotionally is far more daunting of a task than hiding behind the curtains of ironic statements and cynical jokes.
The late and great novelist David Foster-Wallace was a huge champion of doing away with irony, going so far as to note that irony was ruining our culture. He claimed that sentimentality was the bravest thing an artist could do, because to step out from the shroud of irony was to expose your honesty and vulnerability. To remove the honesty and arguably, humanity, from art is to remove any real statement from that art.
Positive Thinking and Stress Management
Do you know what cynicism and negativity are good for? Ulcers, anxiety and stress! Indeed, studies show overwhelmingly that optimism and positive thinking help eliminate most of our anxieties and stresses and contribute to overall better physical health.
Stepping away from positive thinking as an artistic pursuit for a minute, let’s focus on the physical. Instead of being so concerned with the negative aspects of something that it gives us migraines, why don’t we ever explore the positive ramifications of something? Why don’t we ask what could be possible instead of dwelling on what’s not? Why not put that energy towards feeling good and being involved in something positive, not channelling it into cynicism?
Exploring ways we can act positively and enact change is certainly a much better and productive use of your time than lamenting about the state of things. It doesn’t have to just be pretending everything is fine, because there are problems in the world, but it’s more about not dwelling on what you can’t change, and focusing on what you can. Whether it’s giving back as a volunteer, helping out someone in need or just raising awareness about an issue, a little bit of positivity goes a long way at "dangerously optimistic" liberal arts colleges in Chicago.