When people used to ask me what I missed about America, I would say, “The optimism.” I grew up in the land of hope, then moved to one whose catchphrases are “It’s not possible” and “Hell is other people.” I walked around Paris feeling conspicuously chipper.
But lately I’ve had a kind of emotional whiplash. France is starting to seem like an upbeat, can-do country, while Americans are less sure that everything will be O.K.
Cynicism has deep roots in France. In the 18th century, Voltaire mocked optimists for their naïveté and celebrated pessimists for their lucidity. He’s still part of the national curriculum for French eighth-graders, and the râleur — the dissatisfied, grumpy whiner — remains a national archetype. Among intellectuals, if you say that everything is going badly, “everyone says, ‘Look how intelligent he is,’” explained Frédéric Lenoir, author of “Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide.” Since I’ve lived here, polls have regularly shown that the French are more pessimistic about their country’s future than people in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The French haven’t become magically cheerful, but there’s a creeping sense that hope isn’t idiotic, and life can actually improve. As is common with a new president, there was a jump in optimism after Emmanuel Macron was elected last year. But this time, optimism has remained strong, and in January it hit an eight-year high.
It helps that France’s economy is finally growing more and that Mr. Macron has made good on promises ranging from overhauling the labor laws to shrinking class sizes at kindergartens in disadvantaged areas. For those still mourning France’s lost glory as a global power, he has taken the rhetorical lead on climate change and the European Union. And they feel lucky by comparison, as they watch Britain march off a plank with Brexit, and read about American children being killed at school. Voters here still have grievances, and many are reserving judgment. But in the French context, that’s practically euphoria.
“The France of the optimists has won, and is dragging the other part of France toward its own side,” said Claudia Senik, an economist who heads the Well-Being Observatory, an academic think tank here.
The French are even taking an intellectual interest in this alien idea. There are optimism clubs, conferences and school programs, scholars of positivity and books like “50+1 Good Reasons to Choose Optimism.” In September Mr. Macron was a patron of the Global Positive Forum, a study group of “positive initiatives” in business and government. (“Tomorrow can be better than today,” the forum’s website insists.)
It’s still an awkward fit. A TV documentary last fall followed a Parisienne as she tried to adopt a positive outlook, as if she was learning a foreign language. “It seems like it’s a skill, a discipline that one learns,” she marveled.
But you can now get away with dream-the-impossible-dream rhetoric, once disdained as American psychobabble. “From the moment you tell Macron that something isn’t possible, he has a tendency to consider that it is,” a presidential spokesman gushed.
Meanwhile America’s national mood has drifted in the opposite direction. Before Donald Trump took office, optimism about his presidency was the lowest of any president-elect since at least the 1970s. We’re still upbeat about the economy, but just 27 percent of Americans are confident that we’re “generally headed in the right direction,” according to an Economist/YouGov poll.
Optimism — even, and perhaps especially in the face of difficulty — has long been an American hallmark. “What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending,” the novelist William Dean Howells supposedly said.
It’s a shock to realize that we might not get our happy ending anytime soon. I feel this from across the ocean. High school friends recently took up a collection to pay the medical bills of a classmate with pancreatic cancer. On a video call the other day, my father — an ardent patriot who grew up during World War II, and was never very interested in politics — suddenly wept about America’s future.
Of course, there are many varieties of American optimism. Not all are doomed.
There’s the American dream, which holds that you can achieve whatever you want by working hard enough (and its new-age variant, in which you merely have to visualize it). But when the state is going after immigrants, and it’s become tougher to move to a higher earnings bracket, it’s hard to make a case for this theory.
There’s the idea of American exceptionalism — that we’re uniquely blessed and fated to succeed, so our problems must inevitably be fixed. With America lagging other rich countries in realms from health care to high school test scores, it’s difficult to make a case for this, either.
The one form of American optimism that’s still credible is the kind that’s coming from the high school students in Parkland, Fla. It’s a tactical, tenacious, cleareyed optimism, in the tradition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It acknowledges that something is terribly wrong. And in the best part of the American tradition, these kids — and others like them — aren’t just whining. They’re determined to fix it.
That’s what I miss most.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of the forthcoming There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story and a contributing opinion writer.