Rutger Bregman’s most recent book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, explores why the world isn’t actually as bad as we think it is. Here, he shares his advice on how to adopt a more positive outlook towards life.
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Many studies have tried to prove that cynicism is necessary. The psychological theory called the ‘bystander effect’ states individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are other people present. There’s also the idea, popularized through William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, that left to our own devices outside of traditional ideas of civilization, humans will act selfishly and unethically. It’s all added up to create the idea that cynicism is part and parcel of human existence. Or, so we thought.
In his latest book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, historian and author Rutger Bregman found that the opposite was actually true. “The broad message of my book is that most people deep down are pretty decent,” Rutger says. “We’ve got a huge amount of evidence from science, from anthropology, archaeology, sociology and psychology, that shows again and again and again, that we have evolved to be friendly.”
“Biologists literally talk about survival of the friendliest these days,” he continues. “Friendliness is our secret superpower, as a species.”
Rutger has debunked both the bystander effect and the Lord of the Flies theory, using recent data from CCTV and a real-life Lord of the Flies-style case study in his book, to prove the idea that humans are fundamentally good people, and that optimism is the best approach towards life.
Even with all this evidence, however, it can still be difficult to adopt a genuinely positive outlook, especially after the unexpected and difficult events of the last year. But there are ways to change your mindset, as Rutger knows himself – “I used to be much more cynical,” he says.
Here, Rutger explains how you can start to change your mindset to view the world and the people around you more positively.
Always assume the best of other people
Rutger’s research into the bystander effect theory and what people do in real-life situations when someone is in danger found that in 90% of all cases, people help each other. So, it’s not only a positive approach to assume the best of people, it’s a realistic approach too.
“When in doubt, assume the best,” he says. “ If you assume the best, you’ll be right most of the time, because scientific evidence suggests that around 98% of people really mean well.”
“Even if people don’t mean well with you, your positive response can have profound psychological effects,” Rutger continues. “If someone is really nasty to you and you’re responding in a kind and warm way, people find it very, very hard to keep being a pain in the ass, because we are mirrors. We mirror each other’s behaviour all the time. So it can really be rational, smart and wise to even be nice to your enemies.”
Rutger explains that, yes, there are bad people around, like con artists and criminals, which can make this kind of approach difficult. However, he advises us to just accept it. “Accept that a couple of times in your life, you’ll be conned, you’ll be ripped off or someone will abuse your trust,” says Rutger. “But, it’s the price you should be willing to pay for living a life where you can trust everyone around you. It’s a wonderful thing that you should be willing to pay this price.”
If you never want to be conned, your approach to life and to people will always be one of distrust, which means you’ll never really be able to develop an optimistic outlook. Rutger explains people are often ashamed of being conned or tricked, but he believes “People should see it as a sign of their humanity and they should be proud of it.”
Prioritise meeting people face-to-face
“Loneliness is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Rutger says, explaining that, especially after the past year, meeting people face-to-face is very important to developing an optimistic outlook towards life and seeing the best in people.
“We are the only species in the whole animal kingdom with the ability to blush,” Rutger says. “There’s no other animal that blushes – only we do it. It helps us to establish trust between each other. But it’s hard to see someone else blush if you’re on Twitter, right?”
Prioritising spending time with people face-to-face, especially new people, will therefore help you see the best in others and humanity more generally.
Understand that optimism doesn’t mean naïvety
“Very often, we equate cynicism with realism,” Rutger says. “Actually, I think it’s the cynics who are quite naïve. If you look at the latest evidence from science, it supports a much more hopeful view of human nature.”
Rutger’s research proves that a cynical view of the world is actually an unrealistic one and that there is nothing naïve about being optimistic.
“Cynics tend to be lazy people,” he says, explaining that a negative attitude is an easy way to abandon personal, social and political responsibility. “The opposite of cynicism is hope and hope is about the possibility of change,” Rutger says, adding that this is the most advantageous way to think, as history proves that change is possible and productive.
Consume the narratives you want to embody
So often, we read about tragedies that have happened in history and that are happening now because these stories are, for the most part, the exceptions to normal life. The same is true with fictional stories.
“Stories are never just stories,” Rutger says. “We – humans – become the stories that we tell ourselves. If we keep on repeating and telling each other most other people are nasty and selfish, at some point other people will start behaving that way.”
Therefore, it’s important to regulate the kind of narratives you’re consuming and ensure that, in some ways, they reflect life in a realistic and optimistic way.
“I think if you update your view of human nature to a more hopeful and also more realistic and scientific view of who we are as a species, we can change the world,” Rutger says, explaining the stories we consume are essential to updating this.
Regulate your news intake
The news is a crucial part of the narratives we consume and it usually highlights the more negative parts of life. “The news is mostly about exceptions. It’s about things that go wrong,” Rutger says. “So if you watch a lot of news, especially television news, you’ll become very cynical, and depressed.”
Rutger explains a well-known phenomenon among psychologists called ‘mean world syndrome’, where people perceive the world to be more negative than it is because of heavy exposure to negative messages within the media.
“Whenever you read something, or whenever you see something on television, ask yourself a very simple question: ‘Would I still want to watch this if it was one day old, or two days old, or a week old?’” Rutger says. “If the answer is no – ‘I don’t want to read yesterday’s newspaper’ – then you’ve got to conclude that the information in the newspaper is completely worthless.”
Put everything into perspective
“We always think our own era is the most extraordinary era when things are happening that have never happened before,” Rutger says, explaining that, although there are many things about modern society he is worried about, he is sceptical of this narrative as a historian.
“Studying history certainly helps you to put things in perspective,” Rutger says. He uses the example of people saying technology is progressing faster than ever right now, but really things like trains, cars, sewers and electricity were all developed in a relatively short space of time in the late 19th century which, comparatively, was more of a boom in technology.
The same is true when we think bad things are happening right now, Rutger says, explaining that changing your perspective to realise that bad things always happen, but that good things always happen too, will help you to be more optimistic.
Treat people how you’d like them to act
Much like assuming the best of people, you should also aim to treat people with respect, even if you don’t like the way they are acting.
Rutger explains this in the context of politics. He advocates for something called participatory democracy which randomly elects people from all different backgrounds to make political decisions. He explains that this process has been shown to be successful because treating people with this amount of respect, trust and hope means they usually act in ways that align with that.
The same is true with how we treat people on a day-to-day basis, Rutger says. “People will become lazy if you treat them as if they’re lazy. If you treat them like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots,” he says. “If you treat people as if they’re smart, as if they’re altruistic, as if they want to contribute something to the common good, that’s how they will behave so it all starts with your view of human nature.”
Consider the ways in which the world is improving
It’s easy to focus on how things are getting worse and the struggles people are facing, but Rutger stresses there are so many ways in which progress is happening and it’s important to acknowledge them.
Rutger explains that a simple way to do this is by considering generational change. “When you look at it from a generational perspective, young people right now, especially Generation Z, is the most ethnically diverse, most highly educated, and most progressive generation this world has ever seen.”
“A new generation is coming and they have very, very different ideas about this world and I think that will bring an enormous amount of change,” Rutger says, adding that some of this change has already started to happen with things like the Black Lives Matter movement, the climate justice movement and the rise of veganism and vegetarianism.
Understand your individual power
“It’s exactly because people think they cannot make a difference that you as an individual can make an enormous difference,” Rutger says, explaining that one of the most important ways of developing a more optimistic outlook towards life is realising that you as an individual have the power to change things.
“We’re a little bit like sheep – we just do what others do,” Rutger says, of humans. “If you are the black sheep you can have an enormous influence as an individual.”
History and current events have proven the influence individual figures can have – Rutger cites Martin Luther King and Greta Thunberg – adding: “If you really have strong convictions and ideas, you can make an enormous difference.”
Rutger Bregman, author and historian
Rutger Bregman is a historian and author. He has published five books on history, philosophy, and economics. His books Humankind (2020) and Utopia for Realists (2017) were both New York Times bestsellers and have been translated in more than 40 languages. Bregman has twice been nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his work at The Correspondent.
Images: Maartje ter Horst, Rutger Bregman and Getty