Everything bad is good, if you're optimistic enough - except Donald Trump

Academics have found that the benefits of tube strikes actually outweigh the inconveniences. Surprised? Maybe you're looking at it the wrong way

Joe Joseph
Wednesday 16 September 2015 17:28 BST
Is the glass half full or half empty?
Is the glass half full or half empty? (Getty Images)

Optimism was invented by Palaeolithic Man, who allowed himself to dream. Maybe his own life was a little monotonous, but who’s to say that one day someone won’t invent fire, finally enabling him to inject some variety into his mealtimes? (Palaeolithic waiter: “How’d you like your steak today, sir?” Palaeolithic diner: “Has anyone invented fire yet?” Waiter: “Not yet.” Diner: “Then I guess I’ll just have it very rare. Again.” Waiter: “How about I cut the steak into tiny portions for you to share with friends so you’ll go home penniless but also still hungry? The chef calls it ‘tapas’.”)

Pessimists scorn optimists. The former consider the latter to be a people so naive that they must possess a prefrontal cortex the size of a lentil.

Traditionally, it has never been difficult to identify an optimist: the rule of thumb was that if you saw your whisky glass as half full, you were an optimist. If you saw your whisky glass as half empty, you were Dean Martin.

But now there is a new way to identify a true optimist. Just ask them: are you an academic? Because this week a bunch of academics from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge dramatically extended the boundaries of optimism by finding a reason to be cheery in the most unlikely place. They claim that strikes on the public transport system are actually good for us.

The academics (professional motto: “Really? You’re going to give us a grant for this?”) studied the effect on commuters of various transport strikes, notably the 48-hour strike by the RMT union on London Underground last year which led to the closure of more than half the stations. Their conclusion? In the words of Shaun Larcom, of Cambridge University’s Land Economy department: “For the small fraction of commuters who found a better route, when multiplied over a longer period of time, the benefit to them actually outweighs the inconvenience suffered by many more. The net gains come from the disruption itself.”

Be honest: don’t you now feel a little ashamed for whining so much about having had to walk six miles in the rain to get home after work? You just weren’t looking on the bright side.

These academics are working hard to make you feel optimistic about many other of life’s “setbacks”. It might look as if life is giving you a slap across the face, but it’s actually giving you a helpful pat on the back, if only you had the academic insight to recognise it. Here are just a few of the research projects under way:

You’re on the phone for ages, on hold to customer service. Old, pessimistic way of thinking: I’ve missed my daughter’s entire university career, from freshers’ week to graduation, just sitting here waiting for someone to explain why my broadband speed is so slow that it takes longer for me to load a web page than it would take a mollusc to translate the New Testament into Portuguese. New optimistic way of thinking: unable to reach the fridge for three years, I’ve lost four stone, meaning that I might land a £500,000 book deal for my The Call-Holding Diet.

Your new shoes are far too tight. Old way of thinking: It’s agony. Agony. A hundred quid wasted! Optimistic new way of thinking: the tight shoes have completely taken my mind off my splitting headache. A result, no?

Donald Trump becomes US president. Old way of thinking: really? A man who spends more on hairspray each year than the GDP of Sweden? New way of thinking: really? A man who spends more on hairspray each year than the GDP of Sweden?

Nobody said the academic theory was perfect just yet.

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