Optimism Goes Underground

"Optimism" has infiltrated the New York City subway system.

Posted Jan 14, 2010

In a previous blog entry, I discussed recent criticisms of positive thinking and especially positive psychology. Is the United States being undermined by the tendency to look on the bright side? I concluded no, but maybe that was rash. It has just come to my attention that "optimism" has infiltrated the New York City subway system. Along with giant alligators and rats the size of terriers, yet another potential horror lurks beneath the unsuspecting streets of New York. Optimism!

And this is not an urban legend. You can read about it on the Internet, so it must be true. In what is obviously a government-sponsored conspiracy, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has issued seven million Metrocards to riders on which is printed a single word: optimism.


What's next? The slippery slope from optimism may lead to further messages urging kindness, love, and tolerance. Indeed, we live in dangerous times.

Intended as art on an unusual canvas, the Metrocards have stimulated a variety of reactions, some positive and some negative. I suppose that is an indicator of good art. According to Reed Seifer, the artist who designed the card, "I like that people can digest it in any way they choose. I accept all praise and criticism. I love artwork in which people perceive things beyond the intention of the artist."

I have never taken a NYC subway - I'm not optimistic enough to think I could figure out how to do it. But these Metrocards were brought to my attention by Eric Kim, one of my students here at Michigan who went home to the city for the holidays and took the subway.

He sent me a brief e-mail message saying, "Whenever I pulled out the card to get on a subway and saw the word, it set off however briefly a cascade of pleasant feelings and probably even helped me reframe whatever random thoughts I may have had at the moment. Optimistically thinking, this was probably happening all over the city among the millions of subway riders. I think this was a great public health intervention that increased warm feelings for short bursts at a time throughout the city, maybe even accumulating into meaningful outcomes here and there."

As he acknowledged, Eric may have been guilty of foolish optimism in thinking that the Metrocard "intervention" would have beneficial effects. And he certainly overlooked the possibility that these effects might have a downside.

Well-intended critics of optimism can remind us that smiling subway passengers might start talking to strangers and then miss their stops, create safety hazards by getting up to offer their seats to other passengers, or - heaven forbid - take their smiles to work on Wall Street and lose the edge that has made the US economy the envy of the world. Hmmm.

Resistance is needed, like counterfeit Metrocards that read "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." That would make the world a better place and counteract the undermining of America.

Or maybe not. Art is in the eye of the beholder. So too is the good life, as well as the not-so-good life. You choose.

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