Humans tend to have a “good ol’ days” bias. We imagine the past as better than it was. Over time, events and experiences in our own life that were dull or painful can become funny or wonderful as we recreate them in our memory. Epochs long before our time are romanticized, like the idea of the noble savage or the simple pleasure of pastoral life.
This bias can be problematic. We often critique the perceived failures and excesses of the present in comparison to a past that never was and is not possible. Some hate the fact that most of us buy food from people we don’t know, grown by still others we’ve never met. They hate it because they think it alienates us from what we eat in some way. They imagine some past where they would be joyously working a small field to harvest beautiful ready to eat produce that they planted months before with their own hands, far from the grit and concrete of the city and all that shipping and packaging. They don’t think clearly enough to see the constant festering blisters; the rotten, insect-ridden, small, and unreliable crops; the body odor of their family members sleeping in drafty homes with little privacy, and the unavailability of a varied diet, just to name a few oft forgotten realities.
In this case, a rosy bias towards the past makes us less able to effectively deal with real or perceived problems in the present. The romance is employed to prove the need for the use of force to stop human progress. It’s a version of the Nirvana Fallacy.
We could attempt, through mental discipline, to eradicate this tendency in ourselves. We could look hard and deep at the real past, internalize how rough it was, smash the romantic memories and become hardened realists. I think this is a bad solution.
The past is no longer a thing that exists. It is a bundle of ideas we carry in our brains. It is valuable only to the extent it enhances our present. A realistic assessment of the trials and travails before can sometimes make the present better and provide valuable knowledge. Just as often, it offers no value, but only makes us sad. An idealized and romantic past can bring a lot of joy and laughter that enhance our present. The fact that we recreate the material facts of the past and store mostly the positive is probably a wonderful thing. Recall the times you felt tremendous sadness, guilt or fear: Imagine carrying a realistic memory of all those compounded experiences around with you all the time.
More problematic than recreating the past is a failure to recreate the present. The way you perceive life determines the quality of it. If I think fondly on my childhood because I’m filtering it for the good, why not work on implementing a similar filter for the present? It’s never possible to be perfectly accurate in our perceptions of the world; we will always have limits and bias in our worldview. Why not cultivate that bias towards things that bring peace, freedom, and joy? It’s a little more than making lemonade out of lemons. It’s a conscious effort to learn from our brain’s natural filtering of the past and trying to implement it in the present. It’s a discipline. An optimistic outlook is no less accurate than a pessimistic outlook, but it is more fun.
A good place to start cultivating an optimistic (yet realistic) worldview is at Tough Minded Optimism.