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The pessimistic generation: How grown-ups can grow up and give kids some hope

School children wearing facemasks walk outside Condit Elementary School in Bellaire, outside Houston, Texas. (FRANCOIS PICARD/AFP via Getty Images)
School children wearing facemasks walk outside Condit Elementary School in Bellaire, outside Houston, Texas. (FRANCOIS PICARD/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This hour discusses anxiety and other mental health issues. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741. 

Young people today are dealing with fallout from much more than the pandemic.

“We have a big crisis with our children and our young adults that hasn’t … been measured well,” stress scientist Elissa Epel says. “But we see it happening.”

Climate anxiety. Social unrest. Racism. Politics.

An endless stream of negativity on TV, on the radio, on their phones … everywhere.

“Naturally they’re developing a pretty negative view of their future,” Epel adds.

Today, On Point: Kids and pessimism. We hear why it’s time for grown-ups to grow up, and give our kids some hope.


Elissa Epel, stress scientist and psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Member of the Mission: Joy Project. (@Dr_Epel)

Doug Abrams, founder and president of Idea Architects. Co-author of “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times” with Jane Goodall. (@Idea_Architects)

Elissa and Doug are both speakers at the upcoming Activating Hope Summit.

Also Featured

Dr. Madeleine Lansky, psychiatrist and member of the UCSF Task Force in San Francisco, CA.

Zaynab Jawaid, age 19, from Danville, CA.

Hannah Baptiste, age 17, from Brockton, MA. Read her poem “It’s Not Showtime” here.

Ellie Perry, age 11, from Shoreview, MN.

Daphne Matsakis, age 10, from Somerville, MA. Read her poem “Balloons” here.

Aniya Butler, age 15, from Oakland, CA.

Ira Hager, age 19, from Mt. Vernon, KY.

Interview Highlights

On the ‘pessimistic generation’

Elissa Epel: “It’s both a shock to hear such pessimistic, negative views of the world in their future, and it’s so expected. It’s so reasonable, given this confluence of the social and existential crises that really have pervaded their lives in the last few years. We already had a youth crisis in mental health before the pandemic, and before the kind of crystallization this year of the climate crisis. We had increases in suicidality around 5% in our in our young adults.

“… And now they’re facing, directly facing, such an uncertain future. And the poor mental health has just skyrocketed. And we read paper after paper documenting suicidality, anxiety, depression and it is certainly an epidemic upon an epidemic. But … we’re really part of this. We are the social model, the adults, the parents, kids are sensitive and perceptive. And so what are we feeling and what are we conveying? And are we taking care of our own mental health?”

On a definition of pessimism

Elissa Epel: Pessimism is a very strong personality trait where you have this worldview where you expect negative outcomes. And it does shape our behavior and it leads us to, for example, take care of things less. To floss our teeth less, to not do prevention and take care of our health behaviors. And pessimists have worse health, and in some studies, they die earlier. And so we know that it’s a difficult way to live, but it is changeable. We also know that personality is changeable.

“I think what you’re pointing to is really not personality. It’s rather these attitudes that are being shaped, and resulting from not just bad news that passes, but … unsolvable global crisis. Things that feel unsolvable, existential crises that are new to us. And we have been so relying on the strength of both time to heal things, and human spirit to recover. And people are resilient. People return to their good mental health within years after the most devastating personal crises. So this is the strength of the human spirit. And now we’re dealing with not only worrying about something in our personal lives, or some event that might pass, but problems that are so vast in time and space they seem unsolvable.

“So it’s not irrational. But what is the problem is it is a distorted reality. Because we know what we see on the news is this curated, negative picture. And every day there are amazing, beautiful things that are happening and positive changes. And we don’t hear about those. And we don’t hear about the solutions nearly as often as we hear about the traumatic problems. So part of this is an excessive pessimism that could be shaped toward a more balanced and realistic view of what we need to do together.”

On steps to defeat pessimism in kids

Elissa Epel: “We can’t control the uncertain future. And so what we control is what is here now and in our day. And making those spaces that you talked about that are so rare, to disconnect from the media and the news, and connecting with people who are in front of us and allowing time for self-care. Mental health must come first. We have to reduce stigma. We have to as adults, as parents, as teachers, share our own universal humanity.

“We are in a new era where authenticity is an essential piece of how we connect and survive together, showing our vulnerability. We humans, we’re imperfect. We suffer, but seeking help is a sign of strength. So I think for having discussions about mental health, and reaching out to people and … talking about if you go to therapy or take meds, these shouldn’t be secrets. We are all struggling.”

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