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Are Humans Hard-Wired to Be Optimistic?

Posted By Mark Sisson On May 10, 2012 @ 8:00 am In Health | 107 Comments

If you ask most people, they’ll pretty much agree that optimism is better than pessimism. Oh, you might get one or two who laugh at the cockeyed optimists and their naivete about the world and its harsh, grim realities, but when you get down to it, optimists feel good about their lot in life, while pessimists feel bad about where they and the world are headed. Feeling good is a good, desirable state of being. Feeling bad about the future, well, just feels bad. Which would you rather experience?

Exactly.

As they’re popularly understood, optimists are the glass half-fullers, the ones who sit in front of a full length mirror in a lime green cardigan uttering daily self-affirmations [7] that may or may not have basis in reality. Pessimists are often seen as realists, as people who see the world for what it is and make the requisite prudent decisions based on that insight. If you asked a random person (or asked a random person to write an op-ed [8]) who would be more likely to be successful (however you want to measure it) – an optimist or a pessimist? – that person would likely answer “the pessimist.” Optimists, you see, are too happy go lucky. They see nothing wrong with the world and have no desire to change that which is fine and dandy. They don’t plan for difficult times. They don’t save. The “biggest movers and shakers” of the status quo, however, were and are pessimists, because they are wholly dissatisfied with the status quo and seek to change things. Or something like that.

The truth is that most people are optimists [9]. Even a nation’s people whose leaders are corrupt, whose natural resources have been sold to the highest bidder and whose natural environment has been laid to waste and ruin ranks as the world’s most optimistic [10]. I’d even argue that we’re hard-wired for optimism. We must be, given our immense capacity for and reliance on forethought. You see, if an animal has the ability to plan ahead, to think about the distant future and modify its behavior based on that forethought, the animal needs to be an optimist. Humans can do all those things, and if we simply assumed the future was dark and full of terrors and that we’d crash and burn and fail miserably, we wouldn’t have left the caves, explored the savannah, left Africa, or approached the scary-looking glowing embers that radiated heat and burnt your hand if you went too close after a lightning storm. Optimism, then, enabled our progression as a species. Now, you (and I) might say that our “progress” has more than a few downsides, but the fact remains: here we are. We’re the products of millions of years of daring and optimism.

Humans are pretty unique like that.

Bird migration to warmer climes may look like planning for the coming winter, but they’re really just genetically programmed to respond to changing day length. It isn’t conscious planning. Some animals may be able to plan for the immediate future, like apes, who can assess a situation, leave the room, and come back with the right tool for the job [11], but it’s not planning for the distant future. It’s not gazing across a watery horizon and thinking – nay, knowing – that some wondrous land full of riches and resources lies beyond it.

Our heroes are, well, heroes. We look up to people with courage and derring-do. Explorers, warriors, heretics, revolutionaries – these people face death and oppression and danger, and we admire them for it. And ultimately, aren’t they the strongest kind of optimists? They acknowledge the chance that they’ll be killed or arrested or silenced and still decide to go for it. That’s courage, sure, but it also means they think things will turn out well. They think, deep down, that they’re going to come out on top and survive it all. If that ain’t optimism, I don’t what it is.

And those are the people we universally laud, to whose accomplishments we aspire. They’re cool, they’re ideal. “I want to be just like Steve Jobs/Amelia Earhart/Bruce Lee/that dude who keeps bringing home the fresh antelope after every hunt,” people say. That tells me there might be some innate component to our optimism. And whenever there’s an innate trait or behavior, I look at it a little harder. I start to think there might be something to it after all. Is there?

Well, neuroscientist Tali Sharot certainly thinks so. Her research [12] has uncovered the “optimism bias,” one of the “most consistent, prevalent, and robust biases documented in psychology and behavioral economics.” Sharot speculates that “optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival.” That optimists live longer and are generally healthier [13] than pessimists bolsters this idea. The virtual omnipresence of optimists among humanity does, too.

But as is the case with so many of our genetic proclivities originating in millennia past, the modern world presents a challenge to our genes. The world is much bigger, much more interconnected than ever before. There are millions of paths to success, but the potential to make a terrible decision has gone up as well. Unbridled optimism can be irrational, and that may have been “okay” twenty, thirty-thousand years ago, because there just wasn’t as much trouble to get into back then. Today, though, irrational optimism can break you. It can cause financial woes, convince you that everything will turn out when in fact it (obviously) won’t. “Extreme optimists,” as detailed in a paper entitled “Optimism and economic choice,” tend to display “financial habits and behavior that are generally not considered prudent.” (PDF [14])

Despite the obvious danger of irrational optimism in a world of endless choice and opportunity (for ruin or for gain), most evidence suggests that modern “moderate” optimists are still better off than modern pessimists. They save more money, live longer, have better health outcomes, perform better, and enjoy greater resistance to stressors [15] (as indicated by the levels of stress cytokines released in response to stress) than pessimists. Pessimists, on the other hand, are more likely to be clinically depressed [16]. They’re more likely to be diagnosed with dementia [17], later in life. There are exceptions, of course. Pessimistic law students [18] get better grades, are more likely to make law review, and received better job offers after graduation (unfortunately, lawyers are also the most likely profession to be depressed [19]).

I think Art De Vany’s “No failure, just feedback” is the perfect encapsulation of the optimal optimist outlook. When the optimist fails at something, he or she doesn’t go “well, that’s that” and morph into a lifelong pessimist. They bounce back. They try again, this time taking into account what worked and what didn’t the previous time. They learn from their mistakes and their partial success, because an optimist realizes that things aren’t black and white. Failures aren’t total failures. There are bright sides, little glimmers of success from which helpful data can be gleaned. That’s what optimism is, and that’s what humans are best at.

The good news is that since you’re human, you’re probably wired to be an optimist. So when life throws its worst at you, you’re still likely to be able to see the silver lining. Remember that next time you face something that appears insurmountable; overcoming an illness or injury, losing a substantial amount of weight, reclaiming your health and vitality. It can be done. You can do it. And it all begins with you believing so.

Thanks for reading today. Let me know what you think in the comment board. Is your glass half full or half empty?


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[7] full length mirror in a lime green cardigan uttering daily self-affirmations: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DIETlxquzY

[8] write an op-ed: http://voices.yahoo.com/who-more-successful-optimists-pessimists-3334872.html

[9] most people are optimists: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15214080

[10] ranks as the world’s most optimistic: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/24/nigerians-optimistic-people-world

[11] come back with the right tool for the job: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/world/2006-05/19/content_595226.htm

[12] research: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982211011912

[13] live longer and are generally healthier: http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/03/05/us-optimist-health-idUSTRE5247NO20090305

[14] PDF: http://bit.ly/nGgKoH

[15] enjoy greater resistance to stressors: http://lracu.com/2012/02/01/optimists-are-more-immune-to-stress/

[16] depressed: http://www.scienceblog.com/community/older/2002/B/2002609.html

[17] diagnosed with dementia: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/04/050420090223.htm

[18] Pessimistic law students: http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/pessimistic_lawyers_more_successful_study_finds/

[19] lawyers are also the most likely profession to be depressed: http://lawvibe.com/depression-in-the-legal-profession-lawyers-are-the-most-likely-to-be-depressed/

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