What is our biggest problem as a society?

The debt crisis? The financial crisis? Our tendency to exploit and abuse Planet Earth and its inhabitants? Wars?

These are all big problems.

Our greatest problem is ourselves.

A TIME/Aspen Ideas Festival poll probed Americans on the decade since 9/11.

“The poll confirms that the country is going through one of its longest sustained period of unhappiness and pessimism ever. Today’s teenagers hardly remember a time before 9/11, the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq and constant economic upheaval. Baby boomers, the generation known for continuous reinvention, are filled with worry and doubt about their future and the future of their children.

It is hard to overstate what a fundamental change this represents. A country long celebrated for its optimism amid adversity is having trouble finding the pluck and the spirit that have seen it through everything from world wars to nuclear threats to space races. The U.S. usually bounces back after a few years of difficulty, such as the Vietnam War, Watergate or recessions. After two or three years of anxiety and worry, the electorate normally returns to its innate optimism. Yet the forces now aligned against the American people seem much more formidable to those we surveyed; the poll uncovered the kinds of attitudes we saw among Europeans during the decade after World War II.”

Look at these stats:

  • 71% see the U.S. as worse off now than it was a decade ago.
  • 83% want the US to focus more on domestic issues and less on international affairs.
  • 47% consider the last decade as one of the worst.
  • 52% believe their children will be worse off than people are now.

It’s easy to feel depressed about these opinions and emotions. What happened to the shining city upon a hill?

We’re suffering through a prolonged hangover.

Just like an addict gets used to drugs, we got used to the “quick fix” drug. We were the masters of quick fixes (and still are): Everything can be fixed if you would just take that one pill. Or drink that pomegranate juice. Or eat quinoa. Put a patch on and stop smoking. Trying to lose weight? Just drink that shake.

This quick fix mentality is prevalent in economics, politics and, yes, our industry. Magazines don’t sell anymore? Let’s just hope for the iPad. Behavioral Targeting will save us. Psychographics will rescue our industry. Quick fix after quick fix.

Unfortunately, over time we learned that quick fixes come with unintended consequences and, most importantly, they don’t really fix anything. That’s one of the reasons we feel so pessimistic. We finally had to admit that quick fixes are not sustainable.

People become overly exuberant in good times, they tend to get too pessimistic in bad times.

While the economy is still on life support and industry is struggling through transformative times, the truth is nobody really knows what will happen next. Prudence demands that we prepare for all possible outcomes, including some highly positive ones.

Anything could happen, right? Just as the downside surprised many people, the upside might also come as a surprise to people.

We owe it to ourselves at least to consider the case for optimism.

I’m not talking about bubblicious, starry-eyed, pink glasses times.

I’m talking about opening your mind to the opportunities to be seized just as much as to the dangers to be dodged. It’s easier to be optimistic if you adopt an international perspective. On my travels through Asia and Europe in the last few months, I never encountered this severe pessimism. It was more of a “Let’s get on with it” attitude – working our way out of this hole. Much more realistic, much more in line with what the future will hold for us.

Nobody knows what the future will hold. It will never be the 2007 again. I think that’s a good thing. We are beginning to live in an era of doing better with less. The current economic model is broken and we need to stop propping it up. Our job is to take a quantum leap in terms of imagination – to work on restructuring and redesigning our world. We need to stop relying on quick fixes and have to focus on the long-term transformation of our world.

Do you think in 1946 Germans ever believed they would become a prosperous country again?

How many people believed in 1973 that Nelson Mandela would run one day South Africa?

The case for optimism is really a case for being open-minded – giving space in your mind that things will get better than you think. Nobody really knows. But rational optimism, along with a side of enthusiasm and determination, will go a long way.

Now, get on with it.