by Frida Ghitis, cnn.com
July 9th 2012
(CNN) -- Optimism is all the rage. The enthusiastic cheer of motivational speakers has now received a seal of approval from scientists. So, apparently it's confirmed: Optimism is good for you.
But before we rush full speed down the rah-rah route, let us pause for a moment and see exactly which road we take. We shouldn't confuse the power of positive thinking with the dangerous delusion of wishful thinking. They end at very different destinations.
It's a lesson for countries, politicians, business people and all of us. Optimism by itself can be dangerous. It must always travel in the company of action, common sense, resourcefulness and considered risk-taking.
In reality, a little worrying can lead to action, which is the principal way optimism bears fruit.
One of the most inspiring and even charming traits of the U.S. is its founding and enduring spirit of optimism. No doubt, it's a little less visible now, replaced by cynicism. But America was built on a philosophical foundation of not sitting back and accepting unacceptable outcomes, instead standing up to build a better world. That's the right kind of optimism. It's the one that leads to sensible risk-taking. It acknowledges that you don't always win, that when things don't turn out well, you try a different approach and then another until you find a solution, until you reach a new continent, until you write the right constitution, until you invent the right machine.
It's the opposite of defeatism. And it's very different from denial or wishful thinking.
Optimism without thoughtful and determined action can lead to disaster. It's true for individuals, it's true for business, and it's true for nations. History is full of examples.
The poster boy for off-the-rails, disastrous optimism is Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who met with Hitler in 1938 and handed him a big chunk of Czechoslovakia in exchange for the Fuhrer's word. He didn't ask the Czech people what they thought, but he was giddy with excitement when he got off the plane from Munich waving a piece of paper he and "Herr Hitler" had signed. "I believe it is peace for our time," he immortally declared.
When appeasement was inevitably followed by a most horrific, brutal war, we saw a different kind of optimism, the kind that rolls up its sleeves, defies the odds and makes its own luck. Franklin Roosevelt, who presided over a country with a third-rate army, ordered an industrial transformation of the American economy on a scale that seemed simply out of reach, with the focused, urgent aim of defeating the Nazis.
He declared, "Let no man say it cannot be done. It must be done." Many muttered that it couldn't. But the country got to work. Everyone made sacrifices. Everyone pitched in. The U.S. met production goals that were almost inconceivably ambitious. And it turned the tide of war.
The first case (Chamberlain) was optimism supported by wishful thinking, as useful as buying a lottery ticket to fend off bankruptcy. The second (FDR) was optimism propelled by determined action and smart planning. This is the one that works.