As 2011 approaches perhaps the best thing we can hope for is some optimism.

I remember being on a flight to Iceland a couple of years ago and feeling apprehensive as the plane approached the runway. They were in the middle of their financial crisis and I was afraid that they mightn't even have enough electricity to light up the runway. I needn't have worried. It was well lit.

And Reykjavik was not a ghost town. The streets weren't ravaged by famine and disease. The people were not suicidal. In fact, what I saw on my visit couldn't have been more different from the impression that had been built in my mind by the media.

"Are you safe?" the email began. I scratched my head; "Am I safe?" "Safe from what? This person had seen a video of riots in Dublin. Riots? I hadn't heard of any. Finally, I tracked down information on a tiny disturbance that had been blown out of all proportion by the media.

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a friend who was walking down Grafton Street in Dublin. "They're swarming around the one beggar on Grafton Street," he told me. The international media, it seemed, were out in force, delivering fair, balanced and impartial news. Next stop Portugal, then hopefully Spain and Italy.

Karl Popper, according to Wikipedia, "is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century; he also wrote extensively on social and political philosophy."

"I know very well that much is wrong in our Western society," Popper wrote in 1986. "But I still have no doubt that it is the best that ever existed. And much that is wrong is due to its ruling religion. I mean the ruling religious belief that the social world we live in is a kind of hell. This religion is spread by the intellectuals, especially by those in the teaching profession and in the news media. There is almost a competition of doom and gloom: the more radically one condemns our Western society, the greater seems to be one's chance to be listened to (and perhaps to play a leading role in it)."

"Anyone who is prepared to compare seriously our life in our Western liberal democracies," Popper continued, "with life in other societies will be forced to agree that we have ... the best and most equitable societies that have ever existed in the whole course of human history."

This would be an extremely unfashionable thing to say in Ireland today. You're only taken seriously, it seems, if you use extremist words like "hell" and "Armageddon." But, you know, they're still queuing for Starbucks in my local town. (When I was young finding an Irish person who even drank coffee was a rarity.)

The biggest challenge Ireland faces today is not a financial crisis but an intellectual one. We need to stop scapegoating, crying wolf and feeling sorry for ourselves. We need to be constructive, positive, focused on efficiency and productivity and forward-thinking.

And take Karl Popper's advice: "Open your eyes and see how beautiful the world is, and how lucky we are who are alive!"