Why Is Life Filled with Suffering? Leo Tolstoy's Lessons on Failure, Identity, and Asking "Why?"

The big, unknowable questions in life are seductive, but without small, trivial questions as insulation, those large mysteries can consume us.

Novelist and author Yiyun Li has looked into the face of life's biggest questions. For two years, she lived in and out of psychiatric hospitals as she underwent treatment for suicidal depression. In this time, it was her love of literature that kept her afloat. One of Li's favorite writers, Isaac Babel, said, "If the world could write by itself it would write like Tolstoy." Li reflected on this. As Tolstoy wrote on the biggest topics, like war and peace, but also on the smallest trifles, she took it to mean that life's small questions are meant to insulate us from the big, unknowable ones. Tolstoy wrote the world as it is: a perfect balance of big and small, of answers and mystery. Too much big searching, says Li, and you can put yourself in a timeless trap. Yiyun Li's newest book is Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored.

Are We Born Optimistic? Or Is It a Coping Skill We Learn as Adults?

80% of adults are overly optimistic about life—where does that cognitive bias come from?

There's one brain bias that affects 80% of adults and it has a familiar name you may not expect: optimism. Not always thought of as a cognitive mechanism, the optimism bias leads people to overestimate the likelihood of positive outcomes and to underestimate the likelihood of negative outcomes. It can be hugely helpful in our social lives and in keeping us motivated even if the trade off is, at times, the denial of reality. So where does this cognitive bias come from? Are we born with it, or do we develop it as we grow? Developmental psychologist Lori Markson compiles research about how optimism works in babies and young kids, and how that may help us to understand why we adults are the way we are. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.

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Fair Trade Pharma: A Plan for More Affordable Prescription Drugs

Why do first-world ailments get cured faster than global health crises? Because Big Pharma doesn’t serve sick people, it serves rich people—let's change that.

One of the world's open secrets is that we don't look after all sick people in the same way. Why does back pain in the U.S. get a treatment developed faster than fatal dysentery in Central Africa? It's not a huge riddle: research and development programs of the pharmaceutical industry treat the diseases and ailments that will turn the highest profit. To solve a problem this large and unjust, Nicole Hassoun, a residential fellow with the Hope & Optimism Project at Cornell University, is employing the virtue she terms 'creative resolve'. When obstacles get in our way, Hassoun says we need to think innovatively about how can we change the problem or look at it differently. If we can't appeal to Big Pharma's better nature, then we have to come up with more creative solutions. And Hassoun has one: fair trade pharmaceuticals. Here, she explains her idea to incentivize cheaper drugs and medical access to combat global health crises. This video was filmed as part of the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.

Hope Isn’t Blind: It’s a Way to Build Trust and Manage Anxiety

Some anxieties are essential, and for millennia they kept our ancestors alive. But there's another type of anxiety that we can actually do away with—and it's defeated via hope.

In this refreshing take on the utility of hope, Princeton research scholar Victoria McGeer explains that there's a difference between blind hope and practical hope. The latter means taking a clear-eyed view of potential disappointment, knowing that there may be failure, and then putting your anxieties offline by trusting in the elements that are beyond your control. Trust is a critical feature of human social life, and we're often obligated to trust in uncertain circumstances: trust your kids, trust that stranger, trust your neighbor. Hope, when done properly, can fortify trust, reduce anxiety, and actually give you the tools to cope with disappointment. This video was filmed as part of the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.

Stop Negative Emotions from Defining You: Welcome to The Actors' Gang

The Actors' Gang Prison Project has spent ten years proving that teaching prisoners self-worth and emotional intelligence pays off.

Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actors' Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them emotional training to recover from the trauma of incarceration, and the events of their lives that landed them there in the first place. With an incredibly low recidivism rate of just 10% among her students, Williams' experimental idea has proven its worth and now operates in ten prisons across California, which is where Sabra Williams met former inmate and Actors' Gang student Wendy Stag. Wendy recently shared her personal story of learning to cope with trauma and negative emotion at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors' Gang Prison Project.