12/11/2013 06:17 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

Optimism Will Make the World a Better Place

Some 1.2 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day. Wars rage around the world. Climate change is knocking at our door. In all, there's a lot to be afraid of.

But there's also a lot to be proud of. In the last three decades, extreme poverty has plummeted, improving the lives of literally billions of people around the world. Many countries are experiencing declining birth rates--thanks in large part to aggressive campaigns in the developing world. More people have access to cell phones, Internet, electricity, clean water, health care, and education than ever before. The 21st century is also shaping up to be the least violent yet.

We often don't hear about the progress that humankind has made. Instead, to turn on the news is to be transported into a fiery hellscape of doom and gloom. Serious and pressing problems exist--but the narrative so far has been to focus solely on the bad. It's the 'if it bleeds, it leads' problem of news media, where negative stories attract readers and viewers. This has contributed to a precipitous decline in optimism.

Optimism Versus Pessimism

Being optimistic about your life can improve your physical health. Optimistic people recover faster from surgery, have lower rates of heart disease, and are generally happier. This type of personal optimism is good for your body. But that's not what I'm talking about in this essay. I'm talking about societal-level confidence in our future and humanity's ability to overcome its greatest challenges.

My purpose is to persuade against pessimism--the kind of pessimism that encourages the best and brightest to give up, that disenchants young people, that changes ambition into apathy, and that twist labels like 'idealistic' into something childish and naïve. This kind of pessimism is an infectious affront to progress. And if we keep it up, it will deter people from pursuing careers dedicated to fighting to make the world a better place.

This defeatism has led to belittling people who try to make a difference. These individuals are met with pessimism and doubt--instead of praise and encouragement--for wanting a career 'helping people.' We should be teaching idealism, not criticizing it. We should all have a little more faith in our ability to face the world's problems, and challenge others to do the same.

Taking Action

To celebrate important progress is not an excuse to be complacent or to pat ourselves on the back, but a call to action, to reinvigorate our efforts to change the world and tackle today's problems: global climate change, oppression, human trafficking, poverty, disease, and more. We should look back on our successes for guidance about how to move forward and meet the challenges of our time. Remembering how far we've come is crucial to deciding where we need to go and how.

A recent TED Talk credits the rise in technology with, in the last century, doubling human lifespan, increasing literacy from 25% to 80%, making food 10x cheaper and transportation 100x cheaper. It's helpful to show individuals who are uninterested or disillusioned that people have come together and can come together again to effect a positive change on the world. All is not lost. Not even close.

And if you think all is lost--if you think there is nothing that can be done to ameliorate or mitigate the changing climate, unregulated capitalism, oppressive governments, or heart-wrenching poverty--then it's best if you step aside and allow those who believe in humanity to take the reins and move our world forward.

Following Africa's Lead

Africa is the world's poorest continent, lagging behind in nearly every metric of success and development. Yet Africans are some of the most optimistic about their future. Fourteen out of the world's 15 most optimistic countries are in Africa, according to a Gallup poll.

This means something. It means that, despite everything, more Africans see the future as bright than those of us from much wealthier and developed countries. And that surely influences their ability to work to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. Being pessimistic and lamenting about the world's woes is too easy. It's actively fighting this mentality and fighting for change that is difficult and deserves our full attention.