Time - The Science of Optimism

“Hope isn’t rational – so why are human’s wired for it?”

The line above is the subtitle to Time magazine’s recent cover story titled ‘The Science of Optimism’. The article provides a layman’s look at the science behind much of Derren’s Brown’s social experiment.

“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 grownups: a 2005 study found that adults over 60 are just as likely to see the glass half full as young adults.”

Embracing failure is partly about vigilance against this innate human hubris. About guarding against innate tendencies to under-estimate failure by embracing failure’s possibility (critical to keeping inspiring Dreams from becoming devastating Dream Bubbles)…

“Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — 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. Economists at Duke University found that optimists even save more. And although they are not less likely to divorce, they are more likely to remarry — an act that is, as Samuel Johnson wrote, the triumph of hope over experience.”

“Cognitive neuroscientist Sara Bengtsson, devised an experiment in which she manipulated positive and negative expectations of students while their brains were scanned and tested their performance on cognitive tasks…A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, ‘Take notice — wrong answer!’ These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time. Expectations become self-fulfilling by altering our performance and actions, which ultimately affects what happens in the future.”

“It seems that our brain possesses the philosopher’s stone that enables us to turn lead into gold and helps us bounce back to normal levels of well-being. It is wired to place high value on the events we encounter and put faith in its own decisions.”

“How can we remain hopeful — benefiting from the fruits of optimism — while at the same time guarding ourselves from its pitfalls? I believe knowledge is key. 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, then, 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 — just in case.”

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