Spring 2021 is set to be a banner time for burnout. While it's too early for final statistics on the psychological impact of the pandemic, as Amy Fleming pointed out on the BBC recently, the signs so far are not good.
"The Office of National Statistics can tell us, however, that the proportion of adults reporting psychological distress jumped from 24.3 per cent in 2019 to 37.8 per cent in April 2020, and that sleep problems increased by 9 percent last year," Fleming reports. This isn't just a British phenomenon.
So what do you do if the burnout epidemic isn't just dry statistics for you and you're starting to feel like getting through each day is like wading through waist-high mud? Fleming offers sensible advice (be social! exercise!) but personally, if you're struggling to keep your optimism up, I'd turn to Amanda Gorman instead.
The Young Poet's Prescription for Optimism in Tough Times
The 22-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate electrified both President Biden's inauguration and the Super Bowl with her poetry. Like the rest of the nation, former First Lady Michelle Obama was enraptured by Gorman and sat down to interview her recently for Time.
If you're a Gorman fan the entire interview is worth a read, but one bit at the end is particularly useful if the last 12 months have drawn your energy reserves down to just about zero. "Do you consider yourself an optimist? And if so, how do you hold on to that in hard times?" Obama asks Gorman. The young poet's response showcases wisdom beyond her years.
"Optimism shouldn't be seen as opposed to pessimism, but in conversation with it," she replies. "Your optimism will never be as powerful as it is in that exact moment when you want to give it up. The way we can all be hopeful is to not negate the feelings of fear or doubt, but to ask: What led to this darkness? And what can lead us out of the shadows?"
We often think about optimism as the emotion you experience when you aren't facing too many problems. But Gorman turns that conventional understanding on its head. Optimism, she says, is a choice you make when times get dark. It's a tool you pick up to fight back when the world throws trouble at you.
Hope in the Dark
She's not the only thinker to make this point. Gorman's response to the former First Lady recalls the writing of Hope in the Dark author Rebecca Solnit. "Hope is a gift you don't have to surrender, a power you don't have to throw away," Solnit writes.
Like Gorman, she argues that the best time to insist on hope--on optimism--is when you feel like it least. Hope is looking squarely at your troubles, acknowledging them, and still insisting it's worth pushing to make things better. Optimism is about seeing the darkness and still working to change it. It is a belief, as Gorman says and Solnit echoes, that "grief and hope can coexist."
So know that if you feel like you can barely get out of bed some days, that doesn't mean you've lost your optimism. Instead, let your exhaustion and your worry be a springboard, a reason to recommit to hope. You don't have to feel great all the time to be an optimist. In fact, fighting through burnout and cynicism is the bigger act of faith in the future. As long as you're still fighting, congratulate yourself: You're an optimist.