We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures; we watch our backs, weigh the odds, pack an umbrella. But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision themselves achieving more than their peers; and overestimate their likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).
The belief that the future will be much better than the past and present is known as the optimism bias. It abides in every race, region and socioeconomic bracket. You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient. A survey conducted in 2007 found that while 70% thought families in general were less successful than in their parents’ day, 76% of respondents were optimistic about the future of their own family.
Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations which make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment. But the bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat.
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, better ones, and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. Optimists in general work longer hours and tend to earn more.
Even if that 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. Researchers studying heart-disease patients found that optimists were more likely than non optimistic 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 non pessimistic patients of the same initial health, status and age.
In fact, a growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. The science of optimism, once scorned as an intellectually suspect province of pep rallies and smiley faces, is opening a new window on the workings of human consciousness. What it shows could fuel a revolution in psychology, as the field comes to grips with accumulating evidence that our brains aren’t just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future.
The optimism bias has been observed in many different countries — in Western cultures, in non-Western cultures, in females and males, in kids, in the elderly. It’s quite widespread.
But the question is, is it good for us? So some people say no. Some people say the secret to happiness is low expectations. I think the logic goes something like this: If we don’t expect greatness, if we don’t expect to find love and be healthy and successful, well we’re not going to be disappointed when these things don’t happen. And if we’re not disappointed when good things don’t happen, and we’re pleasantly surprised when they do, we will be happy.
So it’s a very good theory, but it turns out to be wrong for three reasons. Number one: Whatever happens, whether you succeed or you fail, people with high expectations always feel better. Because how we feel when we get dumped or win employee of the month depends on how we interpret that event.
The psychologists Margaret Marshall and John Brown studied students with high and low expectations and they found that when people with high expectations succeed, they attribute that success to their own traits. “I’m a genius, therefore I got an A, and therefore I’ll get an A again and again in the future.” When they failed, it wasn’t because they were dumb, but because the exam just happened to be unfair. Next time they will do better. People with low expectations do the opposite. So when they failed it was because they were dumb, and when they succeeded it was because the exam just happened to be really easy. Next time reality would catch up with them. So they felt worse.
Number two: Why people prefer Friday to Sunday. It’s a really curious fact, because Friday is a day of work and Sunday is a day of pleasure, so you’d assume that people will prefer Sunday, but they don’t. It’s not because they really like being in the office and they can’t stand strolling in the park or having a lazy brunch. We know that, because when you ask people about their ultimate favourite day of the week, surprisingly Saturday comes in at first, then Friday, then Sunday. People prefer Friday because Friday brings with it the anticipation of the weekend ahead, all the plans that you have. On Sunday, the only thing you can look forward to is the work week.
In fact, without the 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’re 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.
So optimism changes subjective reality. The way we expect the world to be changes the way we see it. But it also changes objective reality. It acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that is the third reason why lowering your expectations will not make you happy. Controlled experiments have shown that optimism is not only related to success, it leads to success. Optimism leads to success in academia and sports and politics. And maybe the most surprising benefit of optimism is health. If we expect the future to be bright, stress and anxiety are reduced.
So what we would really like to do is, we would like to protect ourselves from the dangers of optimism, but at the same time remain hopeful, benefiting from the many fruits of optimism. And I believe there’s a way for us to do that. The key here really is knowledge. We’re not born with an innate understanding of our biases. These have to be identified by scientific investigation. But the good news is that becoming aware of the optimism bias does not shatter the illusion. It’s like visual illusions, in which understanding them does not make them go away. And this is good because it means we should be able to strike a balance, to come up with plans and rules to protect ourselves from unrealistic optimism, but at the same time remain hopeful.