Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Thanksgiving and the Case for Optimism!

This post will go up a few days before Thanksgiving and I want to use it to make the case for optimism about the future.  The yapping during the election, the lingering financial crisis, government debt, unemployment, the income gap, natural disasters, global warming, concerns about healthcare and turmoil in the Middle East can make almost anyone pessimistic about the future.   If the facts of the day don’t make you a pessimist, the 24 hour news cycle amplifies all of the craziness in a way that challenges the most hard core optimist.   So, why I am I an optimist?


First, let’s take a little bit longer view.   Think of the “unsolvable” problems confronting the country in say 1968 or 1969:

  • The Berlin Wall.
  • The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress a movement calling for minimal levels of free expression.
  • George Wallace, an avowed racist, ran for President and got 13.5% percent of the vote.
  • Career choices available to women were extremely limited, and opportunities for women and girls to participate in things like competitive sports were minimal.
  • Rivers like the Cuyahoga near Cleveland were so polluted they sometimes caught on fire.
  • China and India were economic basket cases.
  • North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam during Tet.
  • Places like Tucson (where I grew up) were surrounded by intercontinental ballistic missile silos.  Air raid sirens were tested at regular intervals in case we needed to be warned of an impending nuclear attack.
  • The Red Sox had still not won the World Series after trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1918 – the so-called Curse of the Bambino.


I can go on and on with the list, but hopefully you get the message – the list of unsolvable problems changes, and can change pretty fast.  People in their 50’s or older who read this will remember many of these “unsolvable” problems, and I would argue that remarkable progress has been made on all of them in ways that were unimaginable or even inconceivable in 1968.   The Berlin Wall is down, the Soviet Union is no more, many parts of the environment have been cleaned up, China and India have vibrant economies, and women do all sorts of things including running marathons.   The missile silos around Tucson are gone except for one that serves as a museum (visit if you get the chance).   However you feel about Barack Obama and the state of racial issues in the U.S., his election and reelection was inconceivable in 1968.  Vietnam and the U.S. are now major trading partners.  Finally, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, proving nothing is impossible.


Don’t believe all the yapping about how bad things are in healthcare and medicine either.   For example, when I started medical school in the early 1980s, we watched people have heart attacks, gave them primitive drugs, and hoped they survived.   With aggressive treatment many heart attacks are now prevented or stopped in progress and people go on to live long productive lives.   Tiny premature babies in the ICU have gone from not surviving at all, to surviving with multiple complications, to routinely surviving with minimal or no complications.   I could make a list of 100 or more ways things have gotten not only better but dramatically better in healthcare and medicine.


I would also argue that making sure everyone gets high quality care is a “better problem to have” than the problems associated with having nothing to offer.   The same reasoning applies to the U.S. budget and political process.   A lot of the current challenges ultimately flow from our aging population.   It seems to me that this is a much better problem to have than trying to figure out what to do with a population dying young.    Trust me plagues and pestilence are no fun.   For the first time in history many young people know all four of their grandparents, what a wonderful problem to have.


In a number of posts over the last few months I have talked about the twin problems of physical inactivity and obesity.  Problems flowing from the fact that humans can produce food and labor saving technology in amounts, ways, and varieties that seemed like science fiction only a few generations ago.   Like smoking and traffic safety, inactivity and obesity will be solvable and never underestimate how hard life was on a family farm in say 1900.   I would rather be trying to figure out how to get people to be more active and eat a bit better than trying to figure out how to get them enough food.
Look again at the 1968 list at the start of the post and compare it to your current favorite problem list and ask yourself two questions:

  1. How many of the problems on your 2012 list are a consequence of a long term success?  In other words we have a “better problem” now like a lot of grandparents around, or global economic competition vs. nuclear confrontation.
  2. How many of the unsolvable problems on your 2012 list will be there in 40 plus years?    Who can predict, but I bet not many.


Finally, humans are incredibly creative and resilient and never underestimate our collective ability to make things better.   Optimism is also good for your health, a better way to live and learnable.   So, on this Thanksgiving let’s be thankful for the big problems facing our country and the world because they are much better problems to have than the previous big problems.  More importantly, they are nothing more than solutions waiting to happen.


Happy Thanksgiving, and the Dr. in me can’t resist reminding everyone to get some exercise, drive carefully, and wear your seat belts!


4 Responses to “Thanksgiving and the Case for Optimism!”

  1. November 20th, 2012 at 6:55 am

    Be Thankful for your 2012/2013 Challenges! « D2 Ventures says:

    […] Dr. Michael Joyner posted his case for optimism about the future.  In it he lists the following challenges from 1968/1969 that, at the time we thought were […]

  2. November 21st, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    Landon says:

    Very eloquently put! And go Utes!

  3. December 24th, 2012 at 6:11 am

    Mindfulness for Christmas? | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. says:

    […] my post around Thanksgiving I made the case for optimism as a justifiable approach to the world.  The general idea is that many things have gotten better […]

  4. December 31st, 2012 at 6:35 am

    Mastery for New Years? | Human Limits: Michael J. Joyner, M.D. says:

    […] the Thanksgiving and Christmas posts I focused on optimism and mindfulness.   For New Years I want to focus on the complementary concept of mastery.  […]

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