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The Audacity of Optimism

“To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, and not just any old reality but a better one.”- Tali Sharot

Optimism bias is an inclination that many people have which causes them to believe that smilethey are at less risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others. It is a cognitive distortion that approximately 80% of us engage in regularly. Such biased thinking can be an expectation of either negative or positive events. While research suggests that a higher percentage of people are biased towards negative expectations, over 90%, statistics indicate that being overly optimistic can present risks as well as benefits.

Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist and author of “The Science of Optimism: Why We’re Wired for Hope,” has studied the optimism bias extensively. “Hope isn’t rational, so why are humans wired for it?,” Sharot wondered. She defines optimism bias as our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events. “So we underestimate our likelihood of suffering from cancer, or being in a car accident. We overestimate our longevity, our career prospects. In short, we’re more optimistic than realistic, but we are oblivious to the fact.”

She cites marriage as an example. “In the Western world, divorce rates are about 40%. That means that out of five married couples, two will end up splitting their assets. But when you ask newlyweds about their own likelihood of divorce, they estimated at 0%” Sharot goes on to say that if people are married they are more likely to have children, and they believe that their kids will be especially talented. A study in Great Britain for example, indicated that three out of four people were optimistic about the future of their own family, while only 30% said that they thought families were doing better than they were a few generations ago. Sharot says, “Because we’re optimistic about ourselves, we are optimistic about our kids, we are optimistic about our families, but were not so optimistic about the guy sitting next to us, and we are somewhat pessimistic about the fate of our fellow citizens and the fate of our country.” She calls such optimism “private optimism,” and studies indicate that it is the universal, world wide, phenomenon.

Sharot compares optimism to a type of “mental time travel,” that has clear survival advantages. “The understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. This signknowledge that old age, sickness, decline of mental power, and oblivion are somewhere around the corner, can be devastating.” She has concluded that, while the optimism bias is likely to be statistically false, it plays a role in creating a positive psychology. The positive benefits of being optimistic are:
1. People with positive expectations always feel better. Feeling better mentally leads to better physical health as well. Focusing on negativity creates undue stress on the entire system. Optimistic people will be more healthy, have more longevity, and enjoy a higher quality of life.
2. When people with an optimism bias succeed, they tend to attribute it to their own unique situation and capabilities. This increases their feeling of control and mastery, leading to better self efficacy in other situations as well.
3. Optimism leads to anticipation of positive events. Positive anticipation enhances feelings of happiness. Emotions build in anticipation of something good happening, and when it does the experienced is heightened.
4. The human brain is wired to focus on what it expects. People with a strong optimism bias will notice more positive life experiences than those who are negative.

Sharot concludes that, “Optimists are people who expect more kisses in the future, more strolls in the park. And that anticipation enhances their well-being. In fact, without thenote optimism bias, we would all be slightly depressed. People with mild depression, they don’t have a bias when they look into the future. They are actually more realistic than healthy individuals. But individuals with severe depression, they have a pessimistic bias. So they tend to expect the future to be worse than it ends up being.”


Well there you have it, some solid reasons why a little delusional thinking can be healthy now and then. Being aware of the optimism bias doesn’t mean you shouldn’t indulge in it. When it arises accept it and look for ways to utilize it to your advantage.

“What day is it?”
It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
My favorite day,” said Pooh.”
― A.A. Milne

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