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From Nope to Hope

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Each year we leap into fall's frantic pace the day after the Labor Day holiday. It's as if we are all on some new hyper-drug, that "real work" is back, and summer's slower pace is over.

This year it's a bit more challenging to think of September the way wise farmers do: as nature's pause and transition, neither growth nor accomplishment, a time of longer days and sweeter evenings to watch the last full moon of summer.

Even if you are a recovering news junkie like me, it's difficult to hide from the daily assault of really lousy news. The sun appears to be hidden behind dark clouds. Our leaders in Washington seem to represent the politics of nope, rather than the politics of hope. And we need hope.

I have been traveling a good deal more than usual. From London, Buenos Aires, Washington, DC, Los Angeles and points in between, rarely in my conversations with leaders have I sensed more gloom. People report that they feel under-led and adrift under a thick fog of bad news: U.S. unemployment at 9.6 percent, the prospect that millions of workers will NEVER go back to work, and the demise of disgraced CEO's and public officials whose stupidity and garrulous banality is really disgusting. U.S. auto sales plunged in August, President Obama is trying to find his voice in a long-stalled Mideast peace process and two unpopular wars, all the while working to avoid a triple-dip recession during an unprecedented summer of economic discontent. Even in Germany, a country with a renewed economy that grew 9 percent in the second quarter, Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling government is losing support. In London, the coalition government is now forced to confront the need for serious spending reductions and lasting entitlement reforms, all unpopular politically, but essential for a sustainable recovery.

Maybe this is the new abnormal, but we are all impacted by this schizophrenic economy. It erodes our optimism and our hope, both of which are essential to recapturing the grit and grace to get up and get going.

I admit that I am one of those "eternal optimists." Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, I choose to see people as good, as trying to do the right thing, as possessing a willingness to help when others are hurting, and reaching out to those in need. I lived in the center of Manhattan when 9/11 struck. Like all New Yorkers, I knew our city was changed in an instant, and the world would be forever on edge. But, I also experienced and watched months of incredible kindness, compassion, a generosity of time and talents, and a spirit of caring that brought New Yorkers and the nation to a new level of community.

There's little doubt, as the work of psychologist Martin Seligman confirms, that "learned optimism" can boost both your mood and your immune system and shift your interior dialogue to more positive and less pessimistic thinking. But optimism is no panacea. It won't alone heal a broken economy or a wounded heart. Seligman and other researchers confirm that hope plays a potent role in giving a person a measurable advantage in life, in bearing up and staying healthy and vital. Hope can help us be more adaptive, allow us to experience deeper friendships and even more sexual intimacy.

Optimists turn to friends in times of trouble. They tell themselves they can succeed at what they need to do, sticking with what feels difficult until it can be broken down from the formidable to specific, achievable tasks. People low in hope see only the mountain of obstacles and not the small steps through them. The mountaintop of achievement is always shrouded in the mist of pessimistic thinking.

It's important to understand that optimism can be learned and nurtured, and that our gaffs and stumbles aren't fatal. And our colleagues in positive psychology remind us that often the first step is deep gratitude for what we have.

We can choose to become students of the dynamics of economic change while not allowing the storm clouds of uncertainty that form naturally on our planet, one that shifts under us constantly, to dim the sunlight of possibility and promise. History is rich with encouraging lessons. Every period of decline invites a new spirit of innovation. Systems theorists remind us that all endings are precursors and essential for new beginnings.

I spend time as Chairman of The Halo Institute, a non-profit incubator for entrepreneurs. Every day I am inspired by their enthusiasm for the idea, the dream, their Next and their remarkable achievements, often against great odds.

Moving from Nope to Hope is a personal choice. At which end of the spectrum will you choose to sit?

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