The inevitability of suffering is universally acknowledge, but different strategies exist according to the different traditions, usually as forms of mitigation.

Epicureanism sought to maximize pleasures, however innocuous, the intent being to outdistance suffering through distraction or saturation of mind and senses with positive experiences. This strategy does not equate to hedonism automatically but by degrees, by nature of the pursuit, by intensity and cycle of dependence.

New Age thought, for all its constructive psychology, usually lapses into an eclectic Epicureanism, less rationalistic than Enlightenment utilitarianism, but equally and annoyingly optimistic. In this sense, most people espouse a similar view, even while professing hard-nosed or traditionalist ideas about the universe.

Between the ancient and modern views above were religious views resolving suffering outside the present vale of tears and Enlightenment philosophies promising the best of all possible world with the progress of technology. Both represent a continuum of faith in linear and aspirational belief. Both proffer optimism as a mitigation, not unlike the Epicurean and New Age protocols before and after them.

Is optimism, therefore, a useful device for addressing suffering, seeing how ubiquitous it is? Optimism was savagely criticized by some during the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Swift, for example) but in fact Enlightenment praise for reason approximates the height of optimism, easily refuted by the frustration of progress and the trajectory of modern culture and technology.

Stephen Pinker’s assessment that violence is today at a historical low, based on the ebb of expressed brutality and the falling number of war casualties in world conflicts, seems intrinsically optimistic. What Pinker does not take into account in concluding that violence is ebbing is the rise of technology in abetting authoritarian control over the undisciplined and vicarious brutality and random acts of violence of the past. Nor does his conclusion assess anything but formal violence (assault and battery, or acts of war and combat). Envisioning standing armies clashing on ancient battlefields is not the way to assess violence today. Statistics about the numbers killed by guerrillas, militants, state armies using aircraft, mines, cluster bombs, drones, etc. conceal significant casualties. The concept of violence can be stretched to include potential violence: standing armies, propaganda, domestic surveillance, nuclear and conventional arsenals. The potential violence of military weapons is complemented by the technological violence against the environment. There is no need to itemize what modern civilization has wrecked on the environment. Perhaps calling “violence” what is potential or yet to be realized is a novelty by academic standards.

Optimism, in short, has many obstacles to overcome in arguing that suffering is abating and that mitigation can ease the sorrow of societal and environmental violence. But a more personal optimism seems possible in that sphere of existence that people can change, namely their sense of responsibilities about themselves. Thus, certain behaviors, foods, habits, personal acquaintances, relationships, and circumstances, can be avoided (as would the Epicureans or New Age, for that matter) to avoid entanglements, complications fraught with failure, disappointment, or endangerment to psychological life and physical health.

Simplicity ought to be defined as mitigation, as constructive, not as asceticism or a retreat from engagement. A gospel saying states that not only is killing a major transgression but even saying “Fool!” to another person is equivalent violence. Thus, we need not commit violence as legal (war) to count as violence. Forms of violence to others through antithetical thoughts, and behaviors, and violence to the environment through consumption and waste, constitute forms of perpetuating suffering.

The mitigation of suffering comes not through the head or the senses — i.e., the brain or the body — but through the gut, as it were, through an ethos that brings conviction that we can move past the complications and consequences and justifications by nuance. This may be a form of optimism, but not in anything external, therefore, being what Buddhism calls “faith.” One cannot fear to give offense, nor be offended by the criticisms of others when we renounce the world or the worldly. In that renunciation or simplification we mitigate suffering in a manner that no worldly method can, since it is the worldly itself that propagates suffering.