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12 DECEMBER, 2012

The Science of Our Optimism Bias and the Life-Cycle of Happiness

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

“If I expect as little as possible, I won’t be hurt,” Susan Sontag famously wrote in her diary. And yet we’re wired to expect a lot — and to expect great things. So argues neuroscientist Tali Sharot in The Science of Optimism: Why We’re Hard-Wired for Hope — a short, absorbing TED Book summarizing Sharot’s own research, as well as that of others in the field, using a combination of neuroimaging and behavioral science to explore why we’re “more optimistic than realistic,” what this might mean for our everyday well-being, and whether it’s due to the specific architecture of our brains.

The root of optimism, Sharot suggests, isn’t far from what Montaigne argued five centuries ago. She writes:

Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. That is, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind. To think positively about our prospects, it helps to be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is critical for our survival. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity, and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward.

While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. This knowledge that old age, sickness, decline of mental power, and oblivion are somewhere around the corner, can be devastating.

In some instances Sharot cites, this “optimism bias” might be better termed “narcissism bias” — a phenomenon known as the “superiority illusion”:

In a survey by two Ohio researchers, 25 percent of respondents said they were in the top 1 percent for getting along well with others. A separate study of college students found that 93 percent of respondents in the U.S. believed they were above average in driving ability. Most people would even be willing to bet money on it if you asked them to. This high level of car-handling expertise, however, is statistically impossible — we cannot all be better than everyone else.

In discussing the role of memory in optimism and illusion, Sharot echoes the idea that memory is not a recording device:

Memories … are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past may not have evolved for the memory function alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what is to come. The system was not designed to perfectly replay past events, they claimed. It was designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process. Occasionally, details are deleted. At other times, they are inserted.

She traces the intersection of memory and optimism to a neural framework:

The capacity to envision the future relies partially on the hippocampus, a brain structure that is crucial to memory. Patients with damage to their hippocampus are unable to recollect the past, but they are also unable to construct detailed images of future scenarios. They appear to be stuck in time.

[…]

Findings from a study I conducted a few years ago with prominent neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps suggest that directing our thoughts of the future toward the positive is a result of our frontal cortex communicating with subcortical regions deep in our brain. The frontal cortex, a large area behind the forehead, is the most recently evolved part of the brain. It is larger in humans than in other primates and is critical for many complex human functions such as language and goal setting.

Curiously, people with depression are better able to predict future events accurately, indicating that we would all be somewhat depressed if we lacked that very neural mechanism that underpins our optimism bias. But, of course, there’s a problem with that realistic — or, worse yet, pessimistic — accuracy:

The problem with pessimistic expectations, such as those of the clinically depressed, is that they have the power to alter the future; negative expectations shape outcomes in a negative way. Not everyone agrees with this assertion. Some people believe the secret to happiness is low expectations. If we don’t expect greatness or find love or maintain health or achieve success, we will never be disappointed. If we are never disappointed when things don’t work out and are pleasantly surprised when things go well, we will be happy. It’s a good theory — but it’s wrong. Research shows that whatever the outcome, whether we succeed or we fail, people with high expectations tend to feel better. At the end of the day, how we feel when we get dumped or win an award depends mostly on how we interpret the event.

Indeed, as we’ve seen with “the winner effect,” optimism might provide an adaptive advantage:

Although the belief in a better future is often an illusion, optimism has clear benefits in the present. Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress, and improves physical health. This is probably the most surprising benefit of optimism. All else being equal, optimists are healthier and live longer. It is not just that healthy people are more optimistic, but optimism can enhance health. Expecting our future to be good reduces stress and anxiety, which is good for our health. Researchers studying heart attack patients have found that optimists were more likely than nonoptimistic patients to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets, and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. A study of cancer patients revealed that pessimistic patients under the age of 60 were more likely to die within eight months than nonpessimistic patients of the same initial health, status, and age.

One of the most fascinating aspects of optimism comes from behavioral economist Andrew Oswald’s research, who studies happiness across the life-cycle. Sharot writes:

Happiness and the ability to learn from bad news alter with age in reverse patterns. The latter follows an inverse U shape, while the former a more traditional U shape. The behavioral economist Andrew Oswald found that from about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s (middle-age crisis, anyone?). Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. This finding contradicts the common assumption that people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are less happy and satisfied than people in their 30s and 40s.

[…]

All in all, Oswald tested a half million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. From Switzerland to Ecuador, from Romania to Singapore, Slovakia, Israel, Spain, Australia, and China. Happiness diminishes as we transition from childhood to adulthood and then starts rising as we grow wrinkles and acquire gray hair. And it’s not only we humans who slump in the middle and feel sunnier toward the end. Just recently, Oswald and colleagues demonstrated that even chimpanzees and orangutans appear to experience a similar pattern of midlife malaise.

The pattern of a typical person’s happiness through life, based on about 70,000 observations in Britain. Credit: Andrew Oswald and Nick Powdthavee

Perhaps most interestingly, these results held even when Oswald controlled for variables like marital status, health, and cultural climate. But Oswald did find some discrepancies in the age at which happiness reaches its lowest point across different countries, as well as across gender — women hit happiness-bottom at 38.6 years on average, whereas men do more than a decade later, at nearly 53.

Sharot goes on to examine the potential causes of such life-cycle patterns and explores the practical implications of this research — like, for instance, why fear-based PSAs targeting adolescents might be ineffective and how packaging might better communicate a product’s benefits. She concludes:

Yes, optimism is on one level irrational and can also lead to unwanted outcomes. But the bias also protects and inspires us: It keeps us moving forward, rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, and not just any old reality but a better one; and we need to believe that we can achieve it. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. The question then is: How can we remain hopeful, benefitting from the fruits of optimism while at the same time guarding ourselves from optimism’s pitfalls? We are not born with an innate understanding of our biases. The brain’s illusions have to be identified by careful scientific observation and controlled experiments, and then communicated to the rest of us. Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions, we can act to protect ourselves. The good news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusion. The glass remains half full. It is possible to strike a balance, to believe we will stay healthy but get medical insurance anyway; to be certain the sun will shine but grab an umbrella on our way out the door — just in case.

Because, as a very wise woman once wrote, “if you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve … imagine immensities.”

For a deeper dive, complement The Science of Optimism with Sharot’s full-length book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, one of 7 essential books on optimism, and pair with her 2012 TED talk:

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12 DECEMBER, 2012

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living

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“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”

French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), celebrated as the father of modern skepticism, pioneered the essay as a literary genre and penned some of the most enduring, influential essays in history. Collected in Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays (UK; public library; public domain), they explore — much like those of Francis Bacon across the English Channel around the same period — subjects like fear, friendship, government, the imagination, and other intersections of the seemingly mundane and the profoundly existential.

In one of his 107 such exploratory essays, titled “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die,” Montaigne turns to mortality — the subject of one of this year’s best psychology and philosophy books — and points to the understanding of death as a prerequisite for the understanding of life, for the very art of living. Montaigne examines our conflicted relationship with dying:

Now, of all the benefits that virtue confers upon us, the contempt of death is one of the greatest, as the means that accommodates human life with a soft and easy tranquillity, and gives us a pure and pleasant taste of living, without which all other pleasure would be extinct.

[…]

The end of our race is death; ’tis the necessary object of our aim, which, if it fright us, how is it possible to advance a step without a fit of ague? The remedy the vulgar use is not to think on’t; but from what brutish stupidity can they derive so gross a blindness? They must bridle the ass by the tail:

‘Qui capite ipse suo instituit vestigia retro,’

['Who in his folly seeks to advance backwards' -- Lucretius, iv. 474]

’tis no wonder if he be often trapped in the pitfall. They affright people with the very mention of death, and many cross themselves, as it were the name of the devil. And because the making a man’s will is in reference to dying, not a man will be persuaded to take a pen in hand to that purpose, till the physician has passed sentence upon and totally given him over, and then betwixt and terror, God knows in how fit a condition of understanding he is to do it.

The Romans, by reason that this poor syllable death sounded so harshly to their ears and seemed so ominous, found out a way to soften and spin it out by a periphrasis, and instead of pronouncing such a one is dead, said, ‘Such a one has lived,’ or ‘Such a one has ceased to live’ … provided there was any mention of life in the case, though past, it carried yet some sound of consolation. … I make account to live, at least, as many more. In the meantime, to trouble a man’s self with the thought of a thing so far off were folly. But what? Young and old die upon the same terms; no one departs out of life otherwise than if he had but just before entered into it; neither is any man so old and decrepit, who, having heard of Methuselah, does not think he has yet twenty good years to come. Fool that thou art! who has assured unto thee the term of life? Thou dependest upon physicians’ tales: rather consult effects and experience. According to the common course of things, ’tis long since that thou hast lived by extraordinary favour; thou hast already outlived the ordinary term of life. And that it is so, reckon up thy acquaintance, how many more have died before they arrived at thy age than have attained unto it; and of those who have ennobled their lives by their renown, take but an account, and I dare lay a wager thou wilt find more who have died before than after five-and-thirty years of age. … How many several ways has death to surprise us?

Rather than indulging the fear of death, Montaigne calls for dissipating it by facing it head-on, with awareness and attention — an approach common in Eastern spirituality:

[L]et us learn bravely to stand our ground, and fight him. And to begin to deprive him of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death. Upon all occasions represent him to our imagination in his every shape; at the stumbling of a horse, at the falling of a tile, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently consider, and say to ourselves, ‘Well, and what if it had been death itself?’ and, thereupon, let us encourage and fortify ourselves. Let us evermore, amidst our jollity and feasting, set the remembrance of our frail condition before our eyes, never suffering ourselves to be so far transported with our delights, but that we have some intervals of reflecting upon, and considering how many several ways this jollity of ours tends to death, and with how many dangers it threatens it. The Egyptians were wont to do after this manner, who in the height of their feasting and mirth, caused a dried skeleton of a man to be brought into the room to serve for a memento to their guests:

‘Omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum
Grata superveniet, quae non sperabitur, hora.’

‘Think each day when past is thy last; the next day, as unexpected,
will be the more welcome.’ — Hor., Ep., i. 4, 13.]

Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere. The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve. There is nothing evil in life for him who rightly comprehends that the privation of life is no evil: to know, how to die delivers us from all subjection and constraint. Paulus Emilius answered him whom the miserable King of Macedon, his prisoner, sent to entreat him that he would not lead him in his triumph, ‘Let him make that request to himself.’ — [Plutarch, Life of Paulus Aemilius, c. 17; Cicero, Tusc., v. 40.]

In truth, in all things, if nature do not help a little, it is very hard for art and industry to perform anything to purpose. I am in my own nature not melancholic, but meditative; and there is nothing I have more continually entertained myself withal than imaginations of death, even in the most wanton time of my age.

One of Montaigne’s most timeless and timeliest points strikes at the heart of our present productivity-culture, reminding us that the whole of life is contained in our inner life, not in the checklist of our accomplishments:

We should always, as near as we can, be booted and spurred, and ready to go, and, above all things, take care, at that time, to have no business with any one but one’s self: —

‘Quid brevi fortes jaculamur avo Multa?’

['Why for so short a life tease ourselves with so many projects?' -- Hor., Od., ii. 16, 17.]

He presages the “real artists ship” mantra Steve Job made famous five centuries later:

A man must design nothing that will require so much time to the finishing, or, at least, with no such passionate desire to see it brought to perfection. We are born to action:

‘Quum moriar, medium solvar et inter opus.’

['When I shall die, let it be doing that I had designed.' -- Ovid, Amor., ii. 10, 36.]

I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my gardens not being finished.

The essence of his argument is the idea that learning to die is essential for learning to live:

If I were a writer of books, I would compile a register, with a comment, of the various deaths of men: he who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.

[…]

Peradventure, some one may object, that the pain and terror of dying so infinitely exceed all manner of imagination, that the best fencer will be quite out of his play when it comes to the push. Let them say what they will: to premeditate is doubtless a very great advantage; and besides, is it nothing to go so far, at least, without disturbance or alteration? Moreover, Nature herself assists and encourages us: if the death be sudden and violent, we have not leisure to fear; if otherwise, I perceive that as I engage further in my disease, I naturally enter into a certain loathing and disdain of life. I find I have much more ado to digest this resolution of dying, when I am well in health, than when languishing of a fever; and by how much I have less to do with the commodities of life, by reason that I begin to lose the use and pleasure of them, by so much I look upon death with less terror. Which makes me hope, that the further I remove from the first, and the nearer I approach to the latter, I shall the more easily exchange the one for the other.

With a philosophical lens fringing on quantum physics, Montaigne reminds us of the fundamental bias of the arrow of time as we experience it:

Not only the argument of reason invites us to it — for why should we fear to lose a thing, which being lost, cannot be lamented? — but, also, seeing we are threatened by so many sorts of death, is it not infinitely worse eternally to fear them all, than once to undergo one of them? … What a ridiculous thing it is to trouble ourselves about taking the only step that is to deliver us from all trouble! As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so in our death is the death of all things included. And therefore to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago. … Long life, and short, are by death made all one; for there is no long, nor short, to things that are no more.

He returns — poignantly, poetically — to the meaning of life:

All the whole time you live, you purloin from life and live at the expense of life itself. The perpetual work of your life is but to lay the foundation of death. You are in death, whilst you are in life, because you still are after death, when you are no more alive; or, if you had rather have it so, you are dead after life, but dying all the while you live; and death handles the dying much more rudely than the dead, and more sensibly and essentially. If you have made your profit of life, you have had enough of it; go your way satisfied.

Half a millennium before Carl Sagan, Montaigne channels the sentiment at the heart of Pale Blue Dot:

Life in itself is neither good nor evil; it is the scene of good or evil as you make it.’ And, if you have lived a day, you have seen all: one day is equal and like to all other days. There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity.

He paints death as the ultimate equalizer:

Give place to others, as others have given place to you. Equality is the soul of equity. Who can complain of being comprehended in the same destiny, wherein all are involved?

The heart of Montaigne’s case falls somewhere between John Cage’s Zen philosophy and the canine state of being-in-the-moment:

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.

He concludes with an admonition about the solipsistic superficiality of death’s ritualization:

I believe, in truth, that it is those terrible ceremonies and preparations wherewith we set it out, that more terrify us than the thing itself; a new, quite contrary way of living; the cries of mothers, wives, and children; the visits of astounded and afflicted friends; the attendance of pale and blubbering servants; a dark room, set round with burning tapers; our beds environed with physicians and divines; in sum, nothing but ghostliness and horror round about us; we seem dead and buried already. … Happy is the death that deprives us of leisure for preparing such ceremonials.

Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays is now in the public domain and is available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg.

Public domain illustrations via Flickr Commons

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11 DECEMBER, 2012

Amelia Earhart on Marriage

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“I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.”

Charles Darwin gleefully weighed the pros and cons of marriage, ultimately deciding in its favor, while Susan Sontag called it “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings.” But marriage, of course, is like most things in life — all else being equal, you get out of it exactly what you put in.

Amelia Earhart — pioneering aviator, bestselling author, and one altogether fierce lady — must have known that when she sat down on the morning of February 7th, 1931, and penned this exacting, resolute letter to her publicist and future husband, George Putnam. Found in the out-of-print volume Letters from Amelia, 1901-1937 (public library), it spells out (typo notwithstanding) exactly what Earhart wanted — and didn’t want — in a marriage, a bold testament to her independent spirit and liberal mindset just before the golden age of the housewife and shortly after the era of Victorian sexism.

Noank
Connecticut

The Square House
Church Street

Dear GPP

There are some things which should be writ before we are married — things we have talked over before — most of them.

You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means most to me. I feel the move just now as foolish as anything I could do. I know there may be compensations but have no heart to look ahead.

On our life together I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. If we can be honest I think the difficulties which arise may best be avoided should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) in anyone else.

Please let us not interfere with the others’ work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.

I must exact a cruel promise and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.

I will try to do my best in every way and give you that part of me you know and seem to want.

A.E.

The two married that afternoon. Putnam had proposed six times before Earhart finally said her highly conditional “yes.” She kept her last name and refused to be called Mrs. Putnam, even against The New York Times’ insistence. They remained together until Earhart’s tragic disappearance in 1937.

Feministing @dearsarah

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