Friday, August 14, 2015

The Optimism Illusion

Some psychologists say that having an optimistic attitude can make you live longer and achieve higher rates of success, fight disease and even change the outcome of future events, but if you ask me, people who are always cheerful and optimistic make me suspicious and my first reaction is to question their mental capacity. You must really be blind if you can remain cheerful in the face of so much suffering in the world.

My husband calls me negative, a sour puss, always looking at the glass half empty, but I much prefer to look adversity squarely in the face, acknowledge it and then give it a good whack with a strong dose of humor. He, on the other hand, always has something good to say about bad things. If the house were on fire, he would find the silver lining in the smoke clouds rising from the burnt rubble.

There have always been people who insist on wearing rose-colored glasses, no matter how bad things are. It was the German theorist Gottfried Leibniz who developed the concept of 'philosophical optimism' by arguing that 'Our world is the best of possible worlds' because otherwise God would have created a different one.

Voltaire didn't buy into this. He was concerned that Leibniz' interpretation would provide divine justification for suffering and injustice, since it was part of the “harmonious universe, in which the human perspective was simply too limited to grasp the role of the individual pieces in the greater design”. In other words, Leibniz's explanation for the existence of suffering in our perfect world was that God works in mysterious ways, an explanation that many people still use today.

Voltaire wrote an enormously witty story to make fun of Leibniz' optimistic view of the world. In 'Candide', the hero is taught by his mentor Pangloss, who sticks to his optimist guns throughout the numerous misfortunes and calamities that the story contains, never losing his idiotic belief that 'it's all for the best'. Voltaire summarizes Leibniz’ philosophy, by giving it a satirical interpretation: “There is no effect without a cause in this best of all possible worlds', he says. "Noses were made to wear spectacles, and so we have spectacles. Legs were visibly instituted to be breeched, and we have breeches…”

Regardless of what Voltaire had to say about optimism, it seems to be hardwired into our DNA. According to Tali Sharot, author of 'The Optimism Bias', when we acquired the ability to look into the future, by imagining ourselves in another time than the present, it gave us enormous advantage over other species; we could plan, imagine situations in which we would be in danger and prepare ourselves for them. It gave us a clear survival advantage, but it also meant that we knew that one day we were going to die.

Being aware of your own mortality is not the best motivator for action, so the only way mental time travel could work to our advantage was to pair it with irrational optimism about the future. According to Sharot, knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future. (Believing in an afterlife, which denies death altogether, is the ultimate form of optimism.) 

Imagining the future can only be done by tapping into memories of the past, and since our brains are wired to wear rose colored glasses, we twist both the future and the past to create optimistic images. Of course our children are going to be geniuses, our new job is going to be a great success and if we buy enough tickets we are bound to win the lottery.

But what if we give optimism too much meaning because it's part of our mental process? Too much meaning at the risk of becoming blind to reality? Not many people are 'realists', people who see the world as it really is. In fact, we don't call these people 'realists', we call them 'pessimists' or 'depressed individuals'. This is ironic, because the definition of a healthy person is one that maintains close contact with reality. If that were true, most of us would be considered mentally ill.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a sobering book on the negative aspects of too much optimism. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, she explores this quintessential American quality in detail and points out that Americans suffer from collective self-delusion. Being optimistic, upbeat and cheerful, should make us the happiest nation on earth, but in fact, compared to other nations, the US ranks low on the World Happiness Index. We are a nation that suffers from what Sharot calls the 'optimism bias'. When someone does point out that things are not as they should be, they are told to smile and look upon the bright side of having lost a job, being underwater or being diagnosed with cancer. Those events are opportunities to learn and grow, we are told. It is not the labor market or the predatory lending practices that need changing, it is our attitude. 

This over-emphasis on positive thinking puts all the responsibility on the individual and has a paralyzing effect. Where is the anger that we need to actually change reality? While 65% of the country acknowledges that the income gap has widened, and that the system favors the wealthy, 65% also believe that most people who work hard enough can make it. But it cannot be both, can it?

What if optimism is just a non-essential by-product of something else in our evolution that did help us survive? Biologist Stephen J. Gould points out that some seemingly functional aspects of an organism may be the accidental consequence of some other feature – as with the spandrels (or spaces) between the arches which support the dome of a cathedral. The spandrels are beautifully decorated, which gives the illusion that they were designed for that purpose, but they have no structural function. They are not adaptive.

The brain is full of non-essential 'spandrels' and maybe our propensity for optimism is one of them. Maybe it has to do with the belief that evolution is directional and progressive, which is probably also an illusion and a result of human arrogance. Gould talks about historical contingencies that caused mass extinctions, not because of a lack of 'fitness' on the part of the extinct species, but because they lived in the wrong place at the wrong time. This quotation from Mark Twain summarizes Gould’s view of history and human arrogance well. 'It is no more reasonable to assume that humans were the necessary outcome of evolution than it is to assume that the Eiffel Tower was built to put paint on top of it.'

Qualities such as arrogance, optimism/pessimism and individualism vary from culture to culture. In a collective culture, such as Japan, the individuals suffer less from unrealistic optimism because they are more 'self-effacing' rather than 'self-enhancing', which is typical of 'individualistic' cultures, such as the US and Canada. Muslim culture is said to be fatalistic. Europeans are less optimistic than Americans. Of course, these cultural attitudes are shaped by experience. America has not been wracked by centuries of incessant wars and misery, as Europe has.

Some countries suffer from outright pessimism. Hungarians, for instance, are the most pessimistic country in Europe. They often view themselves as the victim and have a pessimistic view of their future, even though their economy is not nearly as bad as some bordering countries.

So, is the optimism bias good or bad? If it prevents you from taking precautions because you think you are invulnerable, it's bad. If it motivates you to go the extra mile, it's good.

What I have issue with, is the social pressure to be positive. There are many ways of coping with adversity and being optimistic is just one of them. Let me be my natural gloomy, whiny self. After all I am Hungarian by birth. leave comment here