Collapsing house prices, global recession, environmental disaster – have you heard anyone say they feel "optimistic" recently? It would sound vaguely ridiculous, like a nostalgic notion from some bygone age. It's a word that conjures up thoughts of well-meaning fools – Don Quixote or Candide; though lately it carries darker connotations – images of boom and bust, dotcom arrogance and worse still, oblivious bankers spending their way to disaster. Optimism! It's hardly the rallying cry we need to get us through the next century. Or is it, in fact – with a bit of modernisation – exactly what we need?
Born in America, I grew up in Britain, where positivity and optimism have long been viewed with suspicion, as naïve or even dangerous, the preserve of hopeless, slightly deluded types – such as President Jimmy Carter or Neville Chamberlain, with his famous piece of paper promising peace from Hitler.
As the "optimist" in my family, I was always the one insisting everything would be OK, even though, apparently, it wasn't. It was frowned upon to be too chirpy, scowled at to be too bright, especially when it was cold and wet. I encountered an attraction to pessimism; it was as if cynicism were somehow manly and realistic, and optimism just a bit... dull.
It isn't just Britain. All over the world, pessimists have the cool role models, the Leonard Cohens and Marlon Brandos. The only optimist role model I could think of was Pollyanna – a little girl with freckles and a ponytail. That said it all.
By 2006, this was taking its toll. Each morning I would lie, pinned to my Egyptian cotton, listening to the urgent voices on the Today programme, wondering whether there was any point getting up. Apparently our destruction as a species was all but assured. I listened grimly as they talked about the melting ice-caps, economic disaster, terrorism, the impossibility of finding a cure for baldness. The bad news was all around us – and we reached for it as if addicted, like ponies chewing on sugar lumps.
It was time for a counter-revolution: I decided to write a book and started talking to real-life optimists. It took three years; I lost a kilo of hair and came face-to-face with fears and insecurities I didn't even know I had. But it was worth it.
When I asked people on the street what "optimism" meant to them, I got "glass half- full", "looking on the bright side", "silver linings". It was the territory of cliché and vaguely wartime mottos. The word seemed exhausted, misunderstood, fallen on hard times, associated with all the wrong things – Americans and Tony Blair. It was ready for the taking, to be moulded to my purposes, like a bankrupt company with a great name but no sense of direction. It was the Woolies of abstract descriptive nouns. Finally I had found my purpose: I would redefine optimism.
I did some historical research. Very few people knew the original meaning of the word – which has nothing to do with a bright side, or half-fullness, or clouds with linings. It comes from the word "optimum", meaning "the best possible", and was first coined by Leibniz, the 18th-century philosopher, to signify the perfection of the universe as it exists. In other words, optimism was nothing to do with the future – rather it was a description of reality now. The world and the universe is already "optimal", it couldn't be any better.
This seemed controversial, given things were so saliently sliding into the dung heap, but that's before I started meeting the world's most extreme positive thinkers and asked them to explain themselves. I talked to powerful achievers such as Richard Branson, Mick Jagger and Desmond Tutu and asked them what optimism could be in the 21st century and how I could have it. When Branson defined the word as living in the moment – "However hard I'm working and however tired I am," he told me, "I make sure I just enjoy every single second of my life" – he was setting a dauntingly high hurdle for me to jump. But jump it I was determined to do.
Then there were the business leaders and psychologists, economists and thinkers who shared their insights. From them I learnt practical techniques that I still use to this day, such as the vital but easily missed truth that only we have the power to change our own feelings and thoughts.
Then there were my real teachers – a weird and wonderful mixture of survivors, celebrities and spiritualists. It was they who gave me the definition of optimism that I'd been looking for – a new kind of optimism that was relevant to everyone, and held true in good times and bad. Especially bad...
I will mention three of them: Immaculée Ilibagiza, a young woman who lived through the Rwandan genocide and faced her darkest fears as she hid in a bathroom for three weeks. Immaculée survived her ordeal, she says, because at a certain moment she realised she had the power to accept her situation, to forgive her would-be killers and become free from fear.
Then there was Emma, a city headhunter who was diagnosed with breast cancer, only to realise that she was not afraid of death and looked on her illness as an experience of profound learning – and suddenly found herself enjoying life more than she had ever done before.
And finally Akira Kazan, a modest Californian housewife who simply decided, one day, to be happy – and to stop waiting for it to happen. "You don't have to do anything," she told me. "It's already there." When I argued that it took some people years of therapy to reach just a basic sense of feeling OK, she shook her head: "You've just been conditioned with the idea that you have to do something before you can be happy. It's not true. You can just choose it. Now!"
As I met these people it dawned on me that they encapsulated the meaning of Leibniz's original definition of optimism – a definition coined long before the current passion for therapy and navel- gazing, but all the more relevant for that. True optimism, I realised, is about accepting the world as it is, letting go of our obsession with the future, and setting oneself free with that knowledge. As Bill Clinton said: "Think about how much you have to let go of. I think about it every day."
Today, I no longer feel the need to fight for my bright, bushy-tailed view of the world. I don't need to know things will turn out well to feel optimistic – which is probably a good thing right now. And I'm no longer embarrassed to call myself an optimist. I've found a new, realistic optimism, and I'm ready for whatever the century sends my way.
Don't worry, be happy: An optimism manifesto
New optimists see all events as positive, not because they are bound to turn out well but because everything that happens gives us an opportunity to experience a previously repressed or resisted feeling, the true "silver lining".
It is not events – losing our job, nuclear war, repossession – we are afraid of, but our reactions to them: we're afraid of our own feelings. When we understand that, then anything that can happen to us is OK because it simply allows us to experience another feeling in our body.
If we don't resist them, feelings have their own life cycle – they come and go without doing harm. If we can allow these emotions to arise, no matter how scared we are of them, then we can be free from fear.
Happiness is a decision. We can have it now, or we can wait for it to "happen" to us some time in the future when the conditions are right. The most successful optimists have all made the same discovery: we can decide to be happy. And it works.
Laurence Shorter's book about his experiences, 'The Optimist', is out on 22 January. To order 'The Optimist' at a special price of £9.89 with free p&p to UK mainland addresses, call 0870 0798 897 or visit independent booksdirect.co.ukReuse content