The world we live in is getting increasingly chaotic and dangerous. The lingering global financial crisis almost brought the world economy to its knees. Weapons of mass destruction are cultivated by rogue regimes. Nations seem less cohesive than before, afflicted by ethnic or religious or cultural faction. The prospect of terrorism in the form a bio attack isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. Even tropical storms seem to have grown more intense in recent decades, arguably a result of global warming. The epidemic public shooting in America has brought the threat of deadly violence to schools, movie theaters, religious gathering places, and literally to our backyard.

It sounds apocalyptic, and some religiously minded people think it literally is. Fundamentalist Christians cite growing global chaos as evidence that Judgment Day is around the corner. No matter from what angle you are examining the situation, we all seem to agree that the world is indeed approaching a culmination of sorts; our species seems to face a kind of test toward which basic forces of history have been moving us for millennia. It is a test of political imagination—of our ability to accept basic, necessary changes in structures of governance but also a test of moral imagination*.

“Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny,” is a book by Robert Wright originally published in 2000. It argues that biological evolution and cultural evolution are shaped and directed first and foremost by “non-zero-sumness”. There is a basic distinction between “zero-sum” games and “non-zero-sum” games. In zero-sum games, the fortunes of the players are inversely related. In tennis, in chess, in boxing, one contestant’s gain is the other’s loss. In non-zero-sum games, one player’s gain needn’t be bad news for the other(s). Indeed, in highly non-zero-sum games the players’ interests overlap entirely. In 1970, when the three Apollo 13 astronauts were trying to figure out how to get their stranded spaceship back to earth, they were playing an utterly non-zero-sum game, because the outcome would be either equally good for all of them or equally bad.

So how will we do on this test? Wright believes that judging by history, the current turbulence will eventually yield to an era of relative stability, an era when global political, economic, and social structures have largely tamed the new forms of chaos. The world will reach a new equilibrium, at a level of organization higher than any past equilibrium. And the period we are now entering will, in retrospect, look like the storm before the calm. This isn’t to say that non-zero-sum games always have win-win outcomes rather than lose-lose outcomes. Nor is it to say that the powerful and the treacherous never exploit the weak and the naive; scrounging behavior is often possible in non-zero-sum games, and history offers no shortage of examples. Still, on balance, over the long run, non-zero-sum situations produce more positive sums than negative sums, more mutual benefit than parasitism. As a result, people become embedded in larger and richer webs of interdependence*.

Optimism and hope are key elements to forming the positive emotions towards the future. Optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike and better physical health.

People who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent – the bad events will persist, are always going to be there to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary**.

If permanence is about time, pervasiveness is about space. Some people can go about their lives even when one important aspect of it – their love life, for instance – is crumbling. Others let one problem bleed all over everything. When one brick shifts out of its place, they are convinced the whole house will inevitably collapse.

In “Authentic Happiness,” Dr. Seligman recommended a well-documented method (the ABCDE model) for building optimism that consists of recognizing and then disputing pessimistic thoughts. By effectively disputing the beliefs that follow and adversity, you can change your emotion from negative to positive. Here is an example of how to do it.

Adversity (A): I went upstairs to collect laundry. Jane’s room was again a messy explosion. I felt blood rushing to my head. “How many times do I have to tell this girl to keep her room clean? If she loved and respected me even a little, why wouldn’t she just do it to save me this agony?”

Belief (B): Nobody will want to share a room with her when she goes to college because of her messiness. She may even have trouble finding someone to share her life with. I’ve failed as a mother to teach her organizational skills. I’m going to worry about and take care of this girl for the rest of my life.

Consequences (C): I felt a deep frustration and disappointment. When I saw Jane in the kitchen eating breakfast and texting on her phone, I felt like screaming at her. But instead I walked away without even looking at her.

Disputation (D): Maybe I am making too big a deal out of this. She is acting like a typical teenager. Her messy room doesn’t predict a troublesome future or her lack of love and respect for me. I never bothered to clean up when I was her age (I didn’t have my own room either). She’ll learn when she wants to. I think I just need to relax a bit and view this as a phase of her growing up. Like everything else, it shall pass.

Energization (E): I decided that as long as she kept her mess within her room, I wasn’t going to make a big fuss about it any more. So I went upstairs again and closed the door to her room. “Out of sight, out of mind.” I greeted Jane in the kitchen and we had a quick conversation about her activities for the day.

If helplessness can be learned as demonstrated by the lab mice that passively endured the electric shock, optimism can be learned as well. Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions taken together: finding permanent and universal causes of good events along with temporary and specific causes for misfortune.

*Nonzero by Robert Wright
**Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman