Sarah Allen


Words By Sarah Allen

Illustrations by Felicity Taia

What does it take to be optimistic in 2020? 

The original meaning of optimism stems from logic and rationality, where the physical elements of the world reveal evil so we can we can make choices against it. Psychology tells us that optimism can help our emotional wellbeing in uncertain times. Optimism is an ever-shifting word, and an increasingly loaded term. Having strayed far from its original meaning, it has often become a euphemism for delusional and is sometimes confused with with toxic positivity. But perhapsoptimism is a brave choice; it’s an essential ingredient in progress and changemaking, and 2020 may be the trigger.

It’s 2020, the world is grappling with so many issues. Everything feels like it’s falling apart. “Hey, look on the bright side won’t you!” Although well-meaning, comments like this de-legitimise real feelings of anger, powerlessness, fear and grief. Optimism, on the other hand, is about hope. It’s about how we deal with adversity, how we build resilience, rise to life challenges, and make sense of our struggles.

While anger, fear, and grief are valid and powerful emotions, hopelessness might be dangerously demotivating.      


Bombarded by the endless stream of dismal headlines in 2020, there have been times when we all feel a little hopeless. Cognitively, we are hardwired for bad news. We remember the negatives far more than the positives. Roy F. Baumeister, professor at the Department of Psychology at Florida university, suggeststhat people are hardwired toward the negative because it requires more thinking. However, he also writes in the Review of General Psychologythat people concentrate more on the future than on the past, because the future can be changed. Looking beyond the headlines, how can be optimists? And what is the role of optimism in progress?  

Let’s start by saying that optimists are realists with a healthy dose of hope. Crises pose realistic threats, but optimists are the ones who turn these times into opportunities for growth, innovation and progress. As James Bartle, founder of sustainable brand Outland Denim, points out, a silver lining of 2020 is that despite this being an “incredibly challenging year for everyone…it has forced people to recognise the origins of the things they buy, who makes them, what impact the purchase has on the environment”.The challenges are forcing the world to change. And with a little bit of optimism and belief in our capacity to rise to these challenges, this change can be for the better. 

Confronted by endless headlines about coronavirus, police brutality, skies turning orange from bushfires, women’s rights, and economic upheaval, it’s easy to feel like progress hasn’t been made. What can we do? How do we continue to persevere and create change? It is in these moments of hopelessness when optimism is most powerful. We must trust in our changemakers, empower new ones, and join them.

“We don’t let bullshit happen anymore”

Katie Norbury

Katie Norbury is one of those changemakers. As the founder of Get Papped, an organisation that encourages young women to get tested for cervical cancer, she aims to debunk the stigma surrounding female health and reproductive right. Katie shared how the promise of progress and the power of the younger generation drives her motivation. She is “really excited to see that [power] shine”. She speaks about how that power comes from the confidence we now have to stand up for what we believe, something we have seen in spades in 2020. Katie summed it up beautifully: “We don’t let bullsh**t happen anymore”.

Climate change has been a space flooded with changemakers. The scope and complexity of climate change triggers great personal anxiety for many people, and especially young millennials. Dr Heidi Edmonds, a chemical and environmental engineer and ecologist, co-founder of the Australian Parents for Climate Actionis working at the forefront of communicating climate solutions. Although many challenges are being addressed, the bigger issue now lies in communicating and implementing these changes. “I am confident that we will rise to the challenge,substantially, though probably imperfectly”she says. This epitomises how we can define optimism. It is not about getting it perfect, it’sabout believing that, if we work hard enough, we can make a difference. 

“I am confident that we will rise to the challenge,substantially, though probably imperfectly”

Dr Heidi Edmonds

 Optimism also requires reframing missteps as opportunities for learning and continuous improvement. Lucas Patchett’s, co-founder of Orange Sky Australia, a world pioneer in mobile laundries for homeless people, approach to change-making provides a key insight into their success. He explains how he and his partner Nick approach challenges: “let’s build a prototype…let’s try and break it and then if it breaks, we fix it and make it better”. Change doesn’t come from simply starting something, but from persevering with an idea.

These inspiring initiatives have nothing to do with sunshine and rainbows. Optimism is hard work and a brave choice that requires perseverance and commitment in the face of reality. It is, however, a worthwhile choice. Optimism and the acceptance of imperfect progress are the key ingredients in positive change.