‘Optimism is a useful delusion’Comment on this story
London - As a nation, we’re not a very optimistic bunch. We’re more likely to relate to Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch than his cheery neighbour Elmo.
You can’t really blame us, what with rampant corruption, government incompetence and lets not even get started on taxis.
But it has become standard practice to distrust bankers and politicians (and journalists, for that matter), but, according to the Edelman Trust barometer, which measures trustworthiness, we have gone a step further and now distrust executives irrespective of profession.
The barometer also found that Britain is one of the most distrustful countries in the world.Plus, we don’t think things are going to get any better. Last year, 48 percent of us saw ourselves as either “struggling” or “suffering” on a Gallup index of well-being, and didn’t expect any improvement over the next four years. It’s all very depressing.
But alongside this staunch pessimism resides an unsettling feeling that we should be more positive. We are always trying to dislodge each other’s pessimism.
Test it for yourself. Sit gloomily in a public place and see how long it takes before an Elmo passer-by says, “cheer up mate/love, it might never happen” or offers one of those trite aphorisms about looking on the bright side, silver linings or closing doors.
The self-help industry, which peddles hope and positive thinking, is still raking in billions, while other industries are faltering. So, while steeped in cynicism, it seems we’re still looking for a way to feel more positive.
But what can a positive outlook really do to improve our lives? How can optimism make bankers more trustworthy?
It can’t, says neuroscientist Elaine Fox, a visiting research professor at Oxford University, who recently published the book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain – about our ambivalent feelings of optimism and pessimism.
Our negativity is the response of a rational mind and positivity is a delusion, she says, and for most of us, both act to balance us out. “Positivity is a delusion. But it is a useful delusion. If we didn’t have some sort of optimism, we wouldn’t ever get out of bed in the morning. But pessimism has its place,” she says.
So, when we think positively, are we just tricking ourselves that things will get better? It’s a little more complicated than that, says Professor Fox.
Aside from getting us out of bed, it can help in other areas of life, but not in the way the self-help books might have you believe.
“Where self-help books say, ‘just think happy thoughts,’ it doesn’t work,” she says. But some degree of optimism can work to our advantage, because if we feel more positive, we will take more positive actions, and reap the rewards.
“Optimism helps you persist and gives you a sense of control,” says Fox. “If a mother’s toddler is running to a busy road, but the mother just stands there and thinks happy thoughts, the child will not be saved. If she acts positively and runs to save the child, the child stands a better chance of rescue.”
So, if we had just told ourselves the mantra, “the Olympics will be amazing, the Olympics will be amazing” it wouldn’t have made it happen, but if we used our positivity to take action – by buying tickets to events, or even getting involved as a volunteer, we might have a better chance of enjoying it.
More dramatically, positive thoughts can have concrete health benefits.
Fox interviewed the actor Michael J Fox (no relation) as part of her research to find out how he dealt with being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a progressive neurological condition that affects nerve cells in the brain.
“He said when he got the diagnosis he knew he wouldn’t be able to continue at the level he was at, because no matter how famous you are, studios still have punishing schedules.
“He knew it was the end of his Hollywood career – he was a bit down, but he also felt he would be able to deal with it and cope.”
This is one of the times optimism can help us through, Fox explains – when we are hit by disaster, optimism helps us pick ourselves back up.
Fox also spoke to other people who have had severe injuries or become paralysed. “They have found a different level,” she says, “it is something I am fascinated by.”
In experiments on pain, in which students are asked to keep their hands in buckets of ice water for as long as they can stand it, students who believe they have been given a pain killer, but have just been given a sugar pill will keep their hands in longer than those who aren’t given anything. Scans of their brains show they actually produce a surge of dopamine, a happy chemical, which combats the pain.
This shows that positivity can have immediate physical effects, says Fox.
“Thomas Edison said, ‘if I find 10 000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.’ Optimism is to do with persistence. As with the iced water, optimists will try harder and spend longer on something than pessimists,” says Fox. “(They) also believe they have some control over their life, and that’s why they tend to be more successful.”
But don’t shrug off your Oscar-like cynicism just yet. Fox says a healthy dose of negativity can help us out, too.
“The amygdala – the fear system in our brain that helps us detect threat and danger – is at the root of pessimism. Pessimism helps us suss out danger in our lives.”
And although we’re unlikely to need this reaction the same way our caveman ancestors did – for fight-or-flight reactions – fear is still a useful trait.
“A pessimistic outlook would work if you were setting up your own business,” says Fox, “to identify risk and avoid it.
“So there is a place for pessimism. They say the aeroplane was invented by an optimist and the parachute was invented by a pessimist. That’s the reason I called the book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, because we need both.”
In her work, Fox found that scepticism, combined with a sort of over-arching optimism, was found in people who were successful in life and who were able to overcome setbacks.
“Having a healthy balance makes sense,” she says. “A lot of optimists say, ‘I am realist.’ What they mean by that is that they are an optimist but in the short term they know things won’t always work out. That kind of optimism with a pessimistic slant means you know you can cope with what life throws at you.”
So, if you continue to hope that politicians and bankers will become honest, but treat them with suspicion and anticipate sunshine, but carry a coat, you should get along just fine. – The Independent