Why optimism is essential to our survival

Most people think they are rational, realistic individuals who fall into two categories: those who see the glass half-full and those who see it half-empty.

But according to research, 80% of the population is optimistic. We overestimate the longevity of our marriages and underestimate our chances of getting cancer.

“The divorce rate is nearing 50%, but people who are about to get married estimate their own likelihood of getting a divorce at about 0%,” neuroscientist Tali Sharot says. “It’s not only lay people. Divorce lawyers underestimate their own likelihood of divorce.”

In her new book The Optimism Bias, Sharot writes that optimism is so essential to our survival that hope is hardwired into our brains. We expect the future to be great, even if facts and research tell us otherwise. For example, studies show that satisfaction with life decreases once a married couple has children, hitting rock bottom when kids are teenagers. (Commuting to and from work contributes most negatively to satisfaction with life.)

Meanwhile, money, according to The Beatles, can’t buy you love, but people believe that it can buy them happiness despite research indicating that people who earn more tend to report more moments of anger, anxiety and excitement. Even lottery winners, after the euphoria has faded, report similar levels of happiness as before striking the jackpot, Sharot notes.

“At the end of the day, we stay in an equilibrium,” she says. “We have this stage of happiness and we usually stick around that whatever happens. Of course, when very bad things happen or very good things happen, we can be momentarily less happy or more happy, but we get over them much quicker than we think.”

So why do we wear rose-coloured glasses? First of all, it keeps us healthy, Sharot says. “Optimists are healthier and they live longer. For example, a survey of 100,000 women from the age of 15 to 65 found that the optimistic women were 14% less likely to die and 30% less likely to die from cardiac arrest. It’s the motivation. If we expect to recover from an illness then we’re going to take the actions needed to recover. Optimists are more likely to take vitamins, to eat healthier, to follow the doctor’s orders.”

Optimists also do better in their careers, she adds. “They earn more. They work harder and longer hours. If you expect to get that job, to get that raise, you’re more likely to put in the effort.” In her book, she uses the example of coach Pat Riley who famously predicted that his Los Angeles Lakers would win the NBA championship twice in a row, which they did in 1987 and 1988. It’s what sociologist Robert Merton called a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believing in a positive outcome will enhance the probability that it will happen.

Simply believing is also beneficial. Fantasizing about having a hotter body or a loving family makes us happy. Anticipating something wonderful seems to activate the same neural systems as experiencing it, Sharot writes. On average, researchers found that people would pay more to kiss a celebrity in a year than to smooch immediately.

Now think about having to choose between kissing Brad Pitt or George Clooney. Whoever you choose will likely seem more kissable, more valuable after you have decided on him. “What we tend to do after we make a decision is we tend to re-evaluate the options and we think that the option that we chose is much better than we did before,” she says. “It’s a good mechanism for us to move forward rather than being stuck. It also makes us happier.”

The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain ($29.95) is published by Knopf Canada.

This article was originally published in the National Post July 6 2011.

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