The philosopher Daniel Dennett says that one of the occupational hazards of being a philosopher is that you get asked difficult questions at parties. Being solicited over drinks for free consultancy is, of course, commonplace. If you’re a doctor you’ll be asked to pass opinion on a dodgy knee. Plumbers are gently probed for advice on a tricky u-bend. As a comedian I was invariably asked to comment on ‘this great idea for a sitcom I’ve come up with’ and these days social gatherings are replete with aspiring writers wanting an introduction to my literary agent. But if you’re a philosopher it’s worse. As you reach for another beer you might be asked, “Go on then, what’s consciousness?” Another recurring question Daniel (and probably most philosophers) get confronted with is, “What’s the definition of happiness?”
Luckily he has an answer and it’s a good one: “Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it”.
This then is Principle Two for the successful optimist. All successful optimists have a project that is bigger than they are. By contrast, people who have a project that is the same size as themselves are invariably miserable and tedious company. Once you’ve got a bigger car/ nicer house/ television bigger than God what’s left? As so many find out, eventually the answer is a nagging emptiness accompanied by the thought, “Surely there must be more to life than this?”
Those with something bigger than themselves generally derive a deep-in-the-core happiness from whatever that is. It’s a happiness that comes from a feeling you have a place in the world. A ‘bigger than me’ project can be your family, your religion, military service or a scientific calling. You don’t have to agree with another person’s ‘bigger than me’ project but it is true that people who have them are usually more driven, positive and able to get things done as a result. This is a happiness different from the passing pleasures of a good night out or great joke, and it will not manifest itself as merriment, but its motivating power is fundamental to the successful optimist.
I must say that this principle has no moral dimension. Hitler had a ‘bigger than me’ project as did many of his followers. It’s perfectly possible that a bigger-than-me project could manifest itself as an abandonment of self to the fascist mass, just as much as it could be a worthy cause that allows you self-determination. People who get bad stuff done have many of the same guiding principles as people who get good stuff done. The crucial point is if you want to get anything done it’s important to keep your eye on the big picture and the long game – themes that will recur in later blog posts in this series.
Mark Stevenson is an expert in future narratives, institutional innovation, engineered serendipity and learning and the author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future (Profile Books, 2012).