Life is strange. It goes in cycles. At every level, optimism and pessimism have their seasons. Energy ebbs and flows. But once we realize how pervasive and ever-shifting this pattern is, life becomes easier, richer, and more exciting.
It began with life itself. First there was nothing. Then – probably – there was the Big Bang. The universe came to exist. Progress was slow. Eventually, tiny single-celled organisms appeared. Then nothing much happened – simple cells just didn’t have the right structure to evolve into anything more interesting. After two billion years, however, we got lucky. One single celled creature suddenly folded another – the bacterium, Mitochondria – into itself. That symbiotic relationship led to a profusion of life forms, including all our ancestors – plants, birds, rodents, apes. But it was slow going. Then, around 530 million years ago, things suddenly speeded up. Evolution got at least ten times faster, leading to an explosion of species – the ‘Cambrian Explosion’. Nearly all these species died out, but the few that made it through eventually led to Homo sapiens.
Ebb and flow.
It continued with culture.
Between 440 and 380, almost inexplicably, in a miniscule area of the earth, genius flourished. In Athens, we got the benefit of Plato, Socrates, Thucydides, Herodotus, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. Nothing similar happened until Florence between 1440 and 1490 – Michelangelo, Leonardo, Ghiberti, Botticelli, Donatello ... It next happened quite soon, in Shakespeare’s London, with a whole collection of brilliant minds potted into a generation.
It continued with the economy. Nothing much happened until the Agricultural Revolution around 9,000 BC, when men stopped hunting, women stopped gathering berries, plants started to be cultivated, and animals reared. Thereafter, nothing much until another Agricultural Revolution between 1700 and 1800. Then, the big event of all time – the industrial revolution, which started around 1760 and made humans an ecological success.
Get the picture? It’s like tomato ketchup and buses. Nothing comes and then it all comes at once. Ebb and flow. Sudden changes.
It continued with history. In Europe and America, the eighteenth century was optimistic. The French Revolution put a dampener on that, but not for long. The nineteenth century was even more optimistic – with fantastic results in the economy, science, and living standards. Then, around 1900, a contrary current. Freud claimed to discover our hidden neuroses. Artists, politicians, businessmen, and even scientists became pessimistic. Who knows how far pessimism led to the accidents that triggered World War I – the biggest human disaster up to then. Not for long. Along come the Soviet gulags, the Great Depression, the Nazi concentration camps, another terrible world war.
And suddenly, as the sun emerges after a tropical storm, everything changes. Europe and Japan pull themselves up by their bootstraps, helped by generous American priming of the pump. The European Union – initially an extremely benign force – gets going. War between civilized nations recedes. We get computers, mini-skirts, the Beatles, the counter-culture, the internet – a flowering of individuality and freedom. New technologies flower as never before. Stock markets boom, reflecting but also exaggerating the new wealth creation.
Then a reverse. In the twenty-first century, growth slows. The crisis. Gloom descends on Europe. Many otherwise sensible people say things have changed fundamentally, for the worse.
But of course, it all depends where you sit. The cycle of optimism and pessimism is geographical. When I left England for America in 1974, it looked like the world was ending. There was an oil crisis. The miners brought down the government. Inflation hit 30%. In 1975, stock markets around the world plummeted. My Marxist friends were jubilant; everyone else was depressed. But in Philadelphia, the mood was optimistic, full of energy. Same time, same crises, different attitude. I remember thinking it miraculous when I got a phoned installed within an hour. In London it would have taken six months.
Ebb and flow.
Attitudes matter supremely. Animal spirits drive everything. They are ephemeral. We can never tell how long a collective psychological upswing will last, when it will end, or when it will return. But individually, we have more control.
We can do something to influence how long we live, but our influence is limited. Yet we can do a fantastic amount more to stoke our personal energy, which in turn can be the difference between a massively fulfilled life at one extreme, and suicide at the other.
If you are under the weather, cheer up. It will change. But it will change faster if you change first. And when we realize the absurdity of a mammal that can make the world hugely better or worse just through a mood swing, we suddenly become energized. Energy is influenced by culture, history, geography, and biology – but above all by our own attitudes, and the people we choose to mix with.
Energy is fuelled by optimism. Energy is our secret weapon. Why not fill up your tank?