“The Optimism Bias” Boosts Happiness

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. Tali Sharot, on the optimism bias

Tali Sharot has lots of info about the optimism bias, something in extra helpings we need as a nation right now. She’s done a popular TED talk and written a book, called in fact The Optimism Bias:  A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain (2011). You can go watch the talk on YouTube or read her book right now—or you can just catch some of her best quotes below.

Excerpted quotes from The Optimism Bias:

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. Schoolchildren playing when-I-grow-up are rampant optimists, but so are grown-ups: a 2005 study found that adults over 60 are just as likely to see the glass half full as young adults.

…(A) growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. 

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.

From TED Summaries regarding Sharot’s TED talk:

…(O)ptimistic people are happier because:

  • optimists interpret things differently. Whether they win or lose, they interpret successes as due to their own traits and failures as poor luck or biases.
  • anticipation makes people happy – something pleasant (a kiss from a celebrity) immediately isn’t as enjoyable as one in 3 days time – which lets you look forward to it
  • optimism acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy – it makes you try harder to achieve your goals. Optimism leads to success.

From the actual TED talk:

It’s our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events in our lives and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events. So we underestimate our likelihood of suffering from cancer, being in a car accident. We overestimate our longevity, our career prospects. In short, we’re more optimistic than realistic, but we are oblivious to the fact.

Take marriage for example. In the Western world, divorce rates are about 40 percent. That means that out of five married couples, two will end up splitting their assets. But when you ask newlyweds about their own likelihood of divorce, they estimate it at zero percent. And even divorce lawyers, who should really know better, hugely underestimate their own likelihood of divorce. So it turns out that optimists are not less likely to divorce, but they are more likely to remarry. In the words of Samuel Johnson, “Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience.”

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.

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