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Rebellious Optimists

We Rebellious Optimists campaign for a more positive approach to life, to politics, and to social engagement. We work in the space where fun meets politics.

Happy people vote for change, feel more trust, look for solutions, and live longer, more satisfying lives. They earn more money, and have more friends.

If you find current times depressing, and fear for the future, just spend 20 minutes reading any history book, and imagine a world before schools, feminism, soap, toothpaste, anaesthetics, books, recorded music, fridges, washing machines, atheism, light, toilets, heating, doctors, democracy, human rights, laws, choices about who you marry, if you marry, and how many children you want to have.

Why does Rebellious Optimism matter? Because depression and negativity lead to resignation. And we want action, dynamism, energy, inspiration - leading to hope and progress. Whoosh means energy and dynamism in English.

If you are a woman, or gay, or disabled, or have mental health problems, there has never been a better time to be alive. We recognise the rights of many groups to full equality, independence and engagement. The internet provides forums where we share, support and explore.

Optimism is often viewed as childish, naive, silly. But in fact pessimism is all of those things: adolescent, foolish, mistaken. Next time you hear somebody complaining about life, ask them when in the past they would rather have been born? The same question was posed to Trump supporters wearing Make America Great Again caps (the ultimate retro-chic). And they struggled to answer the question.

The world faces challenges like climate collapse, corporate tax avoidance, post-Corona mental health issues, the digitisation of work and inequality, but evidence suggests that we can overcome these problems, and find creative solutions.

When people read lots of good news, they become sceptical and think, ‘is this really all that is going on?’. But when they see many negative stories (which is every day), they do not think: is this really all the news that happened today, or are there in fact some positive developments out there? Why is that?

Optimism is based on facts, science, evidence, not just the filter bubbles we are creating for ourselves. And the paradox is that intellectuals - both left and right - are some of the least happy people we meet. It often seems the least-educated are the most happy. Could it be that the more education you get, the less happy you become?

Vienna is a city which understands itself to be melancholy, sceptical and anxious. But we live in amazing times. There is huge change going on, presenting many new opportunities, and yet most people seem not to want to enjoy this changed world.

So what makes people happy? It exists in simple pleasures, the joy in details: a sunny day, great design, a story you remember a friend telling, a sweet baby on the train, great songs heard on the radio, the beauty of nature.

Rebellion and Optimism do not usually fit together, but we are rebelling against the angst, the negative news values, the pessimism, the hopelessness. We see it as more romantic to fight FOR optimism than to let the cynics in the press, or the sceptical mood in Wien, be the winner.

Vienna is a model city which could be copied all over the world, with social inclusion, low inequality, a city where poor people live well and there is little crime, lots of culture, good housing, world-class public transport and jobs for young people. A city with a big heart, in an age of turbo-capitalism. We want to better tell the city's story, using events to communicate this. Few Viennese believe they live in the city with the highest quality of life in the world, but we want to persuade them of it.

There’s a big difference between our perception of the world - as understood through the press and social media feeds - and our lived reality. Just as the world seems to be collapsing in chaos, so people walk out of their front doors, meet friends, drink coffee, love and work just as they always have. Yes, the world is changing - but mostly for the better.

During 2019, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty fell below 10% for the first time; global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have fallen in four of the last five years; and the death penalty was ruled illegal in more than half of all countries in 2017.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof declared that by many measures, “2019 was the best year in the history of humanity”, with falling global inequality, child mortality roughly half what it had been as recently as 1990, and 300,000 more people gaining access to electricity each day.

Our prevailing mood of despair is irrational and self-indulgent. It says more about us than it does about how things really are - illustrating a tendency toward collective self-destruction, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity.

Good news can be harder to spot - because it occurs gradually. Max Roser, an Oxford economist who spreads the New Optimist philosophy via his Twitter feed, writes that a newspaper could have run the headline “Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 yesterday” every day for the last 25 years. But none has done so, because predictable daily events aren’t newsworthy.

When friends are late to meet me, I (Eugene) see it not as an irritation, but stolen time to think, reflect or read. Try looking for these positivity hacks in your life.

Take a moment to reflect on all the improvements the world has experienced in the last decade: [Useful list from reasons to be cheerful abt progress in the 2010s: https://reasonstobecheerful.world/the-decade-in-cheer/ ]

This is not a fluffy appeal to look at more cat videos or smile more often. It is a hard, rational plea to fight the devastating ignorance of how our world is changing. There is a creative new school of graphic visualisations which communicate ideas in simple, effective ways. This was a Vienna innovation pioneered by Otto Neurath, from 1919.

Some of these happy approaches come from the Swedish researcher Hans Rosling. He wrote a book called Factfulness, which you should read. Like us, he believed that progress is natural, and that it is scandalous how misrepresented our reality is.

Rosling wrote that we have “completely false perceptions about levels of immigration, with, for example, Italians thinking that 1-in-5 of their population is Muslim when the true figure is 4%. And in Russia and Eastern Europe, where there is scarcely any immigration, anti-liberals have made-up stories about importing foreigners, helping populist leaders like Orban, who offer robust nationalism and the preservation of their countries’ traditional culture.”

Young people in the west are much more liberal than their parents. They have grown up in an atmosphere of fluid gender identity, of migrants-as-schoolfriends (and lovers), and where climate change is understood as a fact. They are simply more tolerant and curious, which seems promising for the future, if you see the world as a place which is looking for improvements.

In 1900, worldwide life expectancy was just 31 years old (33 in Vienna). Today, it’s 71 - and those extra decades involve much less suffering. We are living in history’s most peaceful era, with violence of all kinds - from deaths in war to school bullying - in steep decline.

Another of our positivity heroes, Matt Ridley, likes to quote a predecessor of the contemporary optimists, the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay: “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we expect nothing but deterioration before us?”.

Steven Pinker says, “whenever you judge governments or economic systems for falling short of standards of decency, it’s easy to lose sight of how those standards themselves have altered over time. We’re scandalised by reports of prisoners being tortured by the CIA - but only thanks to the recent emergence of a general consensus that torture is beyond the pale. In medieval England, it was an unremarkable feature of the criminal justice system. We are appalled by the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean only because we start from the position that unknown strangers from distant lands are worthy of moral consideration - which would have struck most of us as absurd in 1700. Yet the stronger this kind of consensus grows, the more unacceptable each violation will seem. And so, the outrage you feel when you read the headlines is actually evidence that this is a magnificent time to be alive.”

"Democracy is doing well: there are now 120 democracies among the world’s 193 countries, up from just 40 in 1972.”

Let’s look at the evidence. The United Nations (based in four cities, including Vienna) created 15 ambitious Millennium Development Goals (reduce child poverty, increase women’s education, etc), to be delivered by 2015. How many did they reach?: 11. This is a beautiful statistic, but you will not find it on the front page of many newspapers.

We have seen many reports about the war in Syria, and its effects on the rest of the world. But how many people have died in that 10-year war?: 400,000. In the second world war, 73 million people were killed, across just six years. We need to put things in perspective, and provide balance.

The internet was created as a utopian source of free exchange and knowledge. It remains that for many people. Yale University posts all lectures online, so that a citizen of Malawi can receive a Yale-class education for free, with internet access. If you want to explore the musical culture of Cambodia, you can do this for free on YouTube right now. This was not the case when Eugene was young - then you had to buy expensive vinyl records and risk some of them not sounding so good. Speaking to friends in other countries is now free through Whatsapp and Skype.

Wikipedia is an open-source fountain of knowledge, making us all more wise. And if you are thinking that not all have equal access to 5G-speed internet, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched 120 satellites which will provide 5G FOR FREE to everybody on planet earth. Why are we not reading about this on the front page of our media? Because of the ugly news values of Krone, Falter, ORF and BBC.

Incidentally, the most popular class ever at Yale - launched in January 2018 - is positive psychology. A quarter of all students at the university are doing this course. This is clearly an idea whose time has come, but also a reminder that seeing the future, and life, positively is not something fixed in your brain, but can be learned and improved, using exercises and new approaches. The movement counters contemporary cynicism with practical, simple ways to give our own lives and those of our friends greater fulfilment and meaning.

Eugene’s favourite urban commentator, Jane Jacobs, recognised (in 1961) that "Cities generate economic growth through networks of proximity and casual encounters. The remarkable creativity of places like New York comes from a dynamic interaction between web-like networks of individuals who exchange knowledge of ideas and opportunities. Many of these interactions are casual, and occur in public spaces - the urban web of footpaths, squares and cafes. More formal and electronic connections supplement, but do not replace, this primary network of spatial exchange."
City Lab research, May 2014

This means that living in the EU’s 5th largest city improves your mental health, income and ideas. But to be a #RebelliousOptimist is certainly unfashionable. We are fighting against the mainstream resentment of the modern, the new and the normal.

While we celebrate fresh new thinking, you are maybe thinking of Donald Trump’s populism, fake news and social media hatespeak. He is useful as a symbol of what is wrong with the new right. Trump has offended so many communities that his base is ever-decreasing. He will lose the election in November 2020. He is a useful corrective, a historical footnote and a freakshow. Typical voters for this kind of conservatism - who feel excluded from a digital future - are increasingly in a minority, because they are rural (in an age of rising urbanisation), old (while the median age is decreasing around the world) and less-educated (while more people are now getting better-educated). This all counts against future populists.

Next time you meet someone - on the street, at breakfast, at a conference, or in a cafe, just think about what that person will take away from those minutes or hours with you - something useful they can reflect on, OR a list of therapeutic complaints that you might consider good conversation. How you approach the world matters not just for your mental health, but also the consequences for those around you.

Raunzen and Grant (typical Austrian pessimism and cynicism) have practical outcomes: voting for FPÖ - the far-right party in our elections - is the natural choice of unhappy people. It is dangerous to not look at facts or evidence, but just to follow your instinctive negativity - or the ugly agenda followed by the popular press. It’s not real news, it is a mix of gossip, opinion and sensationally-exaggerated stories. It doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of what happens each day in university research, best practice in civil society groups or innovation from the streets up. Beware of social media manipulation. Balance it out with your lived reality out on the streets. You meet lots of good people, food tastes fine and the sun shines.

The MA 48 have a disgusting job, but do it with pride and style. For those of you who do not live in Wien, they are the group who clear the trash. But they mean so much more to us, as a charismatic, cool set of Working Class Heroes who represent the city. They are a reminder that it is not about your job, but approach. Whatever you do, you should do it with pride, curiosity and friendship. Open up to the ways your work can connect with your ideas. We find that in Wien, many Beamte, Kellnerinnen and Billa staff could learn from this more positive approach.

It is so important to vote. And then please vote for progress, with trust and vision, looking at how your city can be more smart, curious and happy. This vision of the future is often missing in contemporary politics, since it’s often focused on an imaginary past. Eugene, as a part of the 30% of adults in Wien who cannot vote, feels frustrated at the lack of opportunity to belong, in his hometown.

We need politicians who look for solutions, instead of celebrating the problems. And that includes looking for dialogue with people who we disagree with politically - and not avoiding them. Let's find out what we share, rather than our differences. It's about taking a few risks, both socially and politically: talking to strangers, trying new things out, being open to possibilities, people and situations. It will almost always be better to work WITH people than against them. The Wirtschaftskammer Wien fought a bizarre battle with Eugene, but now we have developed a successful project together: Sprechende Statuen.

There are clear economic benefits for an employer to have a happy workforce: a 2014 study shows raising people’s happiness makes them 9% more productive. Researchers took Fortune magazine’s annual ‘Best Companies to Work For’ ranking, and compared it with how similar companies performed. The best-to-work-for firms outperformed the others, but investors also undervalued employee well-being. It’s important research, because it shows that the cost of raising happiness levels is more than matched by increased performance. Consultants offering to improve the mood in a workplace are targeting a potentially large market. Statistics show that just 20% of employees worldwide are actively-engaged with their work, which is a tragic figure.

News values dictate: ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. The media is full of drama and suffering. But real life is not like that. You should not avoid the press, but be careful to refer also to the arts, reflection and future ideas research, alongside great books and conversation with clever people. One of the best ways to avoid all the noise and chaos out there is to go for a walk around your neighbourhood, or local park. Or listen to your favourite music. Or join one of our walks, talks, lectures or parties, which are all packed with humour and joy.

They say that mortality is a cheap price to pay for existence. Would you rather not exist? We are the ones who get the opportunity to witness the dazzling circus of life.

We should dance more, sing more, play more and most of all, speak more. Experience the joy of connecting, opening up, being creative together, and not seeing contact as tiresome or threatening. Key words: spontaneity, possibilities, new friends. It might seem irresponsible to be optimist in a time of crisis, but we see this as an approach to challenges, and a way to solve them.

Eugene and the Whoosh collective

PS: Eugene wanted to call his son Whoosh, but the system would not allow it.