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Isaac Asimov on Optimism vs. Cynicism about the Human Spirit

Why cynicism is, above all, a disservice to our own happiness.

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman,” E.B. White wrote in a letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, “the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” A beautiful and soul-expanding counterpart to the power of optimism in the human spirit that White advocates comes from science-fiction icon Isaac Asimov (January 2, 1920–April 6, 1992), found in his posthumously published It’s Been a Good Life (public library) — a rich selection of the author’s letters, diary entries, and his three prior autobiographies, edited by his spouse, Janet Jeppson Asimov, which also gave us Asimov’s wisdom on humanism and science vs. spirituality.

The book itself is titled after some of Asimov’s last words to his wife, but the most magnificent embodiment of his faith in life’s goodness comes from a letter to one of his friends. Asimov writes:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable about enjoying the good things.

Asimov later echoed this sentiment in his spectacular conversation with Bill Moyers in 1988, in discussing the ideas of heaven, hell, and all the artificial ways in which religion tries to keep human goodness in check:

It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being. Isn’t it conceivable a person wants to be a decent human being because that way he feels better?

It’s Been a Good Life, featuring selections from Asimov’s first three autobiographies, In Memory Yet Green (1979), In Joy Still Felt (1980), and the posthumously published I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), is a fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Asimov’s wonderful 1983 Muppet magazine interview on curiosity, risk-taking, and the value of space exploration.

BP

Helen Keller on Optimism

“Doubt and mistrust are the mere panic of timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.”

Decades before the dawn of the positive psychology movement and a century before what neuroscience has taught us about the benefits of optimism, Helen Keller (June 27, 1880–June 1, 1968) — the remarkable woman who grew up without sight and hearing until, with the help of her teacher Annie Sullivan, she learned to speak, read, write, and inhabit the life of the mind with such grace and fierceness that made her one of history’s most inspired intellectual heroes — penned a timeless treatise on optimism as a philosophy of life. Simply titled Optimism (public library | free ebook), it was originally published in 1903 and written — a moment of pause here — after Keller learned to write on a grooved board over a sheet of paper, using the grooves and the end of her index pencil to guide her writing.

She opens the first half of the book, Optimism Within, by reflecting on the universal quest for happiness, that alluring and often elusive art-science at the heart of all human aspiration:

Could we choose our environment, and were desire in human undertakings synonymous with endowment, all men would, I suppose, be optimists. Certainly most of us regard happiness as the proper end of all earthly enterprise. The will to be happy animates alike the philosopher, the prince and the chimney-sweep. No matter how dull, or how mean, or how wise a man is, he feels that happiness is his indisputable right.

But Keller admonishes against the “what-if” mentality that pegs our happiness on the attainment of material possession, which always proves vacant, rather than on accessing a deeper sense of purpose:

Most people measure their happiness in terms of physical pleasure and material possession. Could they win some visible goal which they have set on the horizon, how happy they could be! Lacking this gift or that circumstance, they would be miserable. If happiness is to be so measured, I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a corner with folded hands and weep. If I am happy in spite of my deprivations, if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life, — if, in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.

Recounting her own miraculous blossoming from the inner captivity of a deaf-mute to the intellectual height of a cultural luminary, she brings exquisite earnestness to this rhetorical question:

Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. Once I fretted and beat myself against the wall that shut me in. Now I rejoice in the consciousness that I can think, act and attain heaven. … Can anyone who escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?
My early experience was thus a leap from bad to good. If I tried, I could not check the momentum of my first leap out of the dark; to move breast forward as a habit learned suddenly at that first moment of release and rush into the light. With the first word I used intelligently, I learned to live, to think, to hope.

Still, Keller is careful to distinguish between intelligent and reckless optimism:

Optimism that does not count the cost is like a house builded on sand. A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him.

Reflecting once again on her own experience, she argues that, much like the habits of mind William James advocated for as the secret of life, optimism is a choice:

I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and every one, and make that Best a part of my life. The world is sown with good; but unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good.

Keller explores the two anchors of optimism — one’s inner life and the outer world — and admonishes against the toxic nature of doubt:

I demand that the world be good, and lo, it obeys. I proclaim the world good, and facts range themselves to prove my proclamation overwhelmingly true. To what good I open the doors of my being, and jealously shut them against what is bad. Such is the force of this beautiful and willful conviction, it carries itself in the face of all opposition. I am never discouraged by absence of good. I never can be argued into hopelessness. Doubt and mistrust are the mere panic of timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.

Like Isabel Allende, who sees creativity as order to the chaos of life, Keller riffs on Carlyle and argues for creative enterprise as a source of optimism:

Work, production, brings life out of chaos, makes the individual a world, an order; and order is optimism.

And yet she is sure to caution against the cult of productivity, a reminder all the timelier today as we often squander presence in favor of productivity, and uses Darwin’s famed daily routine to make her point:

Darwin could work only half an hour at a time; yet in many diligent half-hours he laid anew the foundations of philosophy. I long to accomplish a great and noble task; but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It is my service to think how I can best fulfill the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.

She sees optimism, like Italo Calvino did literature, as a collective enterprise:

I love the good that others do; for their activity is an assurance that whether I can help or not, the true and the good will stand sure.

Though her tone at times may appear to be overly religious on the surface, Keller’s skew is rather philosophical, demonstrating that, not unlike science has a spiritual quality, optimism is a kind of secular religion:

I trust, and nothing that happens disturbs my trust. I recognize the beneficence of the power which we all worship as supreme — Order, Fate, the Great Spirit, Nature, God. I recognize this power in the sun that makes all things grow and keeps life afoot. I make a friend of this indefinable force, and straightway I feel glad, brave and ready for any lot Heaven may decree for me. This is my religion of optimism.

[…]

Deep, solemn optimism, it seems to me, should spring from this firm belief in the presence of God in the individual; not a remote, unapproachable governor of the universe, but a God who is very near every one of us, who is present not only in earth, sea and sky, but also in every pure and noble impulse of our hearts, “the source and centre of all minds, their only point of rest.”

In the second half of the book, Optimism Without, she makes an eloquent addition to these notable definitions of philosophy and touches on the ancient quandary of whether what we perceive as external reality might be an illusion:

Philosophy is the history of a deaf-blind person writ large. From the talks of Socrates up through Plato, Berkeley and Kant, philosophy records the efforts of human intelligence to be free of the clogging material world and fly forth into a universe of pure idea. A deaf-blind person ought to find special meaning in Plato’s Ideal World. These things which you see and hear and touch are not the reality of realities, but imperfect manifestations of the Idea, the Principal, the Spiritual; the Idea is the truth, the rest is delusion.

Much like legendary filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky advised the young to learn to enjoy their own company, Keller argues for philosophy as the gateway to finding richness in life without leaving one’s self — an art all the more important in the age of living alone. She writes:

My brethren who enjoy the fullest use of the senses are not aware of any reality which may not equally well be in reach of my mind. Philosophy gives to the mind the prerogative of seeing truth, and bears us not a realm where I, who am blind, and not different from you who see. … It seemed to me that philosophy had been written for my special consolation, whereby I get even with some modern philosophers who apparently think that I was intended as an experimental case for their special instruction! But in a little measure my small voice of individual experience does join in the declaration of philosophy that the good is the only world, and that world is a world of spirit. It is also a universe where order is All, where an unbroken logic holds the parts together, where distance defines itself as non-existence, where evil, as St. Augustine held, is delusion, and therefore is not. The meaning of philosophy to me is not only its principles, but also in the happy isolation of its great expounders. They were seldom of the world, even when like Plato and Leibnitz they moved in its courts and drawing rooms. To the tumult of life they were deaf, and they were blind to its distraction and perplexing diversities. Sitting alone, but not in darkness, they learned to find everything in themselves…

In a sentiment Neil deGrasse Tyson would come to echo more than a century later in his articulate case for why our smallness amidst the cosmos should be a source of assurance rather than anxiety, Keller observes:

Thus from the philosophy I learn that we see only shadows and know only in part, and that all things change; but the mind, the unconquerable mind, compasses all truth, embraces the universe as it is, converts the shadows to realities and makes tumultuous changes seem but moments in an eternal silence, or short lines in the infinite theme of perfection, and the evil but “a halt on the way to good.” Though with my hand I grasp only a small part of the universe, with my spirit I see the whole, and in my thought I can compass the beneficent laws by which it is governed. The confidence and trust which these conceptions inspire teach me to rest safe in my life as in a fate, and protect me from spectral doubts and fears.

Keller argues of America as a mecca of optimism. And yet, as hearteningly patriotic as her case may be, a look at the present state of the plight of marriage equality, the gaping wound of income inequality, and the indignity of immigrants’ struggles (of whom I am one) reveals how much further we have to go to live up to this optimistic ideal:

It is true, America has devoted herself largely to the solution of material problems — breaking the fields, opening mines, irrigating the deserts, spanning the continent with railroads; but she is doing these things in a new way, by educating her people, by placing at the service of every man’s need every resource of human skill. She is transmuting her industrial wealth into the education of her workmen, so that unskilled people shall have no place in American life, so that all men shall bring mind and soul to the control of matter. Her children are not drudges and slaves. The Constitution has declared it, and the spirit of our institutions has confirmed it. The best the land can teach them they shall know. They shall learn that there is no upper class in their country, and no lower, and they shall understand how it is that God and His world are for everybody.

America might do all this, and still be selfish, still be a worshipper of Mammon. But America is the home of charity as well as commerce. … Who shall measure the sympathy, skill and intelligence with which she ministers to all who come to her, and lessens the ever-swelling tide of poverty, misery and degradation which every year rolls against her gates from all the nations? When I reflect on all these facts, I cannot but think that, Tolstoi and other theorists to the contrary, it is a splendid thing to be an American. In America the optimist finds abundant reason for confidence in the present and hope for the future, and this hope, this confidence, may well extend over all the great nations of the earth.

Further on, she adds, “It is significant that the foundation of that law is optimistic” — and yet what more pessimistic a law than an immigration policy based on the assumption that if left to their own devices, more immigrants would do harm than would do good, what sadder than a policy built on the belief that affording love the freedom of equality would result in destruction rather than dignity?

Still, some of Keller’s seemingly over-optimistic contentions have been since confirmed by modern science — for instance, the decline of violence, which she rightly observes:

If we compare our own time with the past, we find in modern statistics a solid foundation for a confident and buoyant world-optimism. Beneath the doubt, the unrest, the materialism, which surround us still glows and burns at the world’s best life a steadfast faith.

[…]

During the past fifty years crime has decreased. True, the records of to-day contain a longer list of crime. But our statistics are more complete and accurate than the statistics of times past. Besides, there are many offenses on the list which half a century ago would not have been thought of as crimes. This shows that the public conscience is more sensitive than it ever was.

Our definition of crime has grown stricter,* our punishment of it more lenient and intelligent. The old feeling of revenge has largely disappeared. It is no longer an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The criminal is treated as one who is diseased. He is confined not merely for punishment, but because he is a menace to society. While he is under restraint, he is treated with human care and disciplined so that his mind shall be cured of its disease, and he shall be restored to society able to do his part of its work.

* Though this may be mostly true on a theoretical level, practical disgraces to democracy like the epidemic of rape in the military offer a tragic counterpoint.

In reflecting on the relationship between education and the good life, Keller argues for the broadening of education from an industrial model of rote memorization to fostering “scholars who can link the unlinkable”. Though this ideal, too, is a long way from reality today, Keller’s words shine as a timeless guiding light to aspire toward:

Education broadens to include all men, and deepens to teach all truths. Scholars are no longer confined to Greek, Latin and mathematics, but they also study science converts the dreams of the poet, the theory of the mathematician and the fiction of the economist into ships, hospitals and instruments that enable one skilled hand to perform the work of a thousand. The student of to-day is not asked if he has learned his grammar. Is he a mere grammar machine, a dry catalogue of scientific facts, or has he acquired the qualities of manliness? His supreme lesson is to grapple with great public questions, to keep his mind hospitable to new idea and new views of truth, to restore the finer ideals that are lost sight of in the struggle for wealth and to promote justice between man and man. He learns that there may be substitutes for human labor — horse-power and machinery and books; but “there are no substitutes for common sense, patience, integrity, courage.”

In a sentiment philosopher Judith Butler would come to second in her fantastic recent commencement address on the value of the humanities as a tool of empathy, Keller argues:

The highest result of education is tolerance. Long ago men fought and died for their faith; but it took ages to teach them the other kind of courage — the courage to recognize the faiths of their brethren and their rights of conscience. Tolerance is the first principle of community; it is the spirit which conserves the best that all men think. No loss by flood and lightening, no destruction of cities and temples by the hostile forces of nature, has deprived man of so many noble lives and impulses as those which his tolerance has destroyed.

“However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light,” Stanley Kubrick memorably asserted, and it’s hard not to see in his words an echo of Keller’s legacy. She presages the kernel of Martin Seligman’s seminal concept of learned optimism and writes:

The test of all beliefs is their practical effect in life. If it be true that optimism compels the world forward, and pessimism retards it, then it is dangerous to propagate a pessimistic philosophy. One who believes that the pain in the world outweighs the joy, and expresses that unhappy conviction, only adds to the pain. … Life is a fair field, and the right will prosper if we stand by our guns.

Let pessimism once take hold of the mind, and life is all topsy-turvy, all vanity and vexation of spirit. … If I regarded my life from the point of view of the pessimist, I should be undone. I should seek in vain for the light that does not visit my eyes and the music that does not ring in my ears. I should beg night and day and never be satisfied. I should sit apart in awful solitude, a prey to fear and despair. But since I consider it a duty to myself and to others to be happy, I escape a misery worse than any physical deprivation.

In the final and most practical part of the book, The Practice of Optimism, Keller urges:

Who shall dare let his incapacity for hope or goodness cast a shadow upon the courage of those who bear their burdens as if they were privileges? The optimist cannot fall back, cannot falter; for he knows his neighbor will be hindered by his failure to keep in line. He will therefore hold his place fearlessly and remember the duty of silence. Sufficient unto each heart is its own sorrow. He will take the iron claws of circumstance in his hand and use them as tools to break away the obstacle that block his path. He will work as if upon him alone depended the establishment of heaven and earth.

She once again return to the notion of optimism as a collective good rather than merely an individual choice, even a national asset:

Every optimist moves along with progress and hastens it, while every pessimist would keep the worlds at a standstill. The consequence of pessimism in the life of a nation is the same as in the life of the individual. Pessimism kills the instinct that urges men to struggle against poverty, ignorance and crime, and dries up all the fountains of joy in the world.

[…]

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.

In an ever-timelier remark in our age of fear-mongering sensationalism in the news — a remark E. B. White would come to second decades later in arguing that a writer “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down” — Keller points to the responsibility of the press in upholding its share of this collective enterprise:

Our newspapers should remember this. The press is the pulpit of the modern world, and on the preachers who fill it much depends. If the protest of the press against unrighteous measures is to avail, then for ninety nine days the word of the preacher should be buoyant and of good cheer, so that on the hundredth day the voice of censure may be a hundred times strong.

Keller ends on a note of inextinguishable faith in the human spirit and timeless hope for the future of our world:

As I stand in the sunshine if a sincere and earnest optimism, my imagination “paints yet more glorious triumphs on the cloud-curtain of the future.” Out of the fierce struggle and turmoil of contending systems and powers I see a brighter spiritual era slowly emerge —an era in which there shall be no England, no France, no Germany, no America, no this people or that, but one family, the human race; one law, peace; one need, harmony; one means, labor…

Pair Optimism — which is available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg — with these 7 heartening reads on the subject, then revisit Keller’s stirring first experience of dance and her memorable meeting with Mark Twain, who later became her creative champion and confidante.

BP

Illustrator Sophie Blackall on Subversive Storytelling, Missed Connections, and Optimism

What Aldous Huxley’s misogyny has to do with children’s books, darkness, and modern love.

Australian illustrator Sophie Blackall remains best-known for her warm, wistful, and whimsical Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found (public library) — a visual paean to modern love by way of illustrated Craigslist missed connections, which you might recall as one of the best art and design books of 2011. If you live in New York, you’ve likely seen and admired her heart-warming subway artwork; and if you have a taste for obscure children’s books by famous adult authors, you might know and love her Aldous Huxley adaptation, one of more than thirty children’s books she has illustrated.

In a recent episode of her fantastic Design Matters show, Debbie Millman talks to Blackall about the difference between an artist and an illustrator, what makes children’s storytelling particularly exciting, the origin and afterlife of the missed connections project, and more. The interview is excellent in its entirety, but here are some favorite excerpts:

On the challenges of illustrating Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, handling its rather misogynistic undertones, and hiding a few secret jokes for the reader to find:

On darkness and optimism, echoing Maurice Sendak’s faith in children’s ability to handle the subversive, and the essence of Blackall’s work:

SB: I think children are pretty subversive creatures.

DM: It’s interesting: It’s subversive in the way that The Wizard of Oz is subversive — there’s a subtext. And that subtext has to do with love, and longing, and loss, and pain. But I guess, for me, there seems to be an innate optimism that doesn’t feel dark — yes, there’s darkness in the work, but I always get the sense that the light overcomes that darkness. … You can create a brush stroke that somehow defines wistfulness. But in that ability to see that wistfulness, I can’t help but feel understood — which … then gives me a great sense of joy.

On the curious, serendipitous genesis of the Missed Connections project:

The [missed connections] listings were intriguing because they mixed the natural desire to make a first impression and the very human need to get a second chance.

But the most tender, moving, and poetic of the stories will stop your breath:

The Whale at Coney Island

— M4M — 69

(Brooklyn/Florida)

A young friend of mine recently acquainted me with the intricacies of Missed Connections, and I have decided to try to find you one final time.

Many years ago, we were friends and teachers together in New York City. Perhaps we could have been lovers too, but we were not. We used to take trips to Coney Island, especially during the spring, when we would stroll hand in hand, until our palms got too sweaty, along the boardwalk, and take refuge in the cool darkness of the aquarium. We liked to visit the whale best. One spring, it arrived from its winter home (in Florida? I can’t remember) pregnant. Everyone at the aquarium was very excited — a baby beluga whale was going to be born in New York City! You insisted that we not miss the birth, so every day after class, and on both Saturday and Sunday, we would take the D train all the way from Harlem to Coney Island.

We got there one Saturday as the aquarium opened and there was a sign posted to the glass tank. The baby beluga had been born dead. The mother, the sign read, was recovering but would be fine. We read the sign in shock and watched the single beluga whale in her tank. She was circling slowly. Neither of us could speak. Suddenly, without warning, the beluga started to throw herself against the wall of the tank. Trainers came and ushered us out. We sat on a bench outside, and suddenly I felt tears running down my face. You saw, turned my face towards yours, and kissed me. We had never kissed before, and I let my lips linger on yours for a second before I stood up and walked towards the ocean.

It was too much — the whale, the death, the kiss — and I wasn’t ready.

Forgive me — I don’t think I ever understood what an emptiness you would create when you left and I realized that that kiss on Coney Island was the first and the last.

Are you out there, dear friend?

If so, please respond. I think of you, and have thought of you often, all of these years.

The full interview is well worth a listen:

For related goodness, subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, treat yourself to Missed Connections, and watch this wonderful Etsy artist profile of Blackall:

BP

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

“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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