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Optimism and the Good Life

Why viewing the glass as half-full can make you a better, happier person
optimism and the good life iaitv
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

What is the good life? I interpret the question in terms of what contributes to our success as agents. Assuming that we are lucky enough not to have to devote all of our mental and physical energy to escaping death or avoiding suffering, what enables us to acquire and preserve the motivation to pursue and achieve the goals we set for ourselves? Why do we persist, in the face of initial failures and arduous challenges? Resilience and determination is often explained by a belief in something greater than us that inspires them. Alternatively, praise is given to an agent’s personality that makes her bounce back from defeats and never give up. And to be sure, it is easier to overcome the inevitable obstacles that might ariseif a supportive social network can be relied on. There is something plausible in all the explanations above. But what if the secret of our perseverance were an all-too-common bias?

I want to suggest that it is our pervasive irrationality that in some circumstances contributes to our success. In the last five years, my research has focused on forms of irrational belief that benefit us, making substantial contributions to our success as agents. With my team, I looked at different forms of irrationality, from the unusual ones associated with schizophrenia, amnesia, and dementia, often referred to as delusions and confabulations in the psychological and clinical literature, to the mundane ones, such as the beliefs driven by implicit bias that we are all likely to have. We have also considered different types of benefits, from the psychological ones, usually captured by an increase in wellbeing or good functioning, to the epistemic ones, characterised by enhanced knowledge or understanding.

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"Due to positive illusions, we are likely to adopt false beliefs and rely on unfounded predictions. However, such failings are instrumental to our living a good life."

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There is one manifestation of our irrationality that is found to be beneficial for us from different perspectives, and that is our vulnerability to positive illusions. We tend to believe that, when it comes to how good we are, to what extent we can control events in our life, and how successful we will be in the future, things are better than they actually are. For instance, we experience the optimism bias when we significantly underestimate the possibility of getting a divorce or experiencing serious illness in the course of our lives. Furthermore, we are ready to update our beliefs and revise our expectations when we receive good news, coming to see ourselves as better and as more likely to succeed than previously thought. However, we discount evidence suggesting that we are set up for failure when we receive bad news.

Due to positive illusions, we are likely to adopt false beliefs and rely on unfounded predictions. However, such failings are instrumental to our living a good life. The effects of positive illusions have been examined in a variety of psychological studies considering academic achievement, career trajectory, health prospects, elite sports, and loving relationships. One robust finding is that having optimistically biased beliefs helps us respond more constructively to threats and set-backs. One example comes from a study by psychologists Oscar Yan and George Bonanno where people who had suffered the bereavement of their spouse coped better with the situation, had better mental health, and experienced better-quality social interactions when they had unrealistically optimistic beliefs about their skills and talents. Another example comes from a study on women who received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Those who came to believe that their illness could be controlled due to self-enhancing beliefs, such as “I am stronger as a result of the illness” or “I can cope better with cancer than other cancer patients”, adjusted better to their diagnosis. The psychological evidence, thus, invites us to consider the possibility that some forms of optimism are at the same time an obstacle to the adoption of rational beliefs and mechanisms supporting agency.

It may sound counterintuitive to argue that irrational beliefs can lead to better life outcomes. An initial concern is that, if we have a picture of reality that is distorted and to some extent insulated from evidence, then we won’t evaluate risks accurately, we won’t make good predictions about what will happen next, and we will fail to navigate our environment effectively. Another worry is that unexpected failure will catch us unprepared and cause disappointment. When reality turns out to be different from what we had originally thought, we can easily disengage from our goals, failing to attain the outcomes in life that we planned for. And there are circumstances in which the effects of over-positive beliefs are precisely those described above: agents react to set-backs by giving up.

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"A belief in my own perfection or invulnerability won’t help me. Rather, a belief that I am skilled and resourceful, just the kind of person who learns from her mistakes, and I will pass the exam next time, will come in handy."

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So how can we reconcile the intuitive dangers of optimism, such as taking excessive risks and disengaging from our goals, with the benefits of positive illusions that support us, say, when we experience threats to our mental and physical health? If I have just failed my driving test, what will support my sense of myself as a capable agent who will persist and ultimately succeed? Not the belief that the examiner was biased, even if that belief will make me feel better in the short run. That is because if that is my explanation of what happened (“It’s not my fault”), then I am likely to conclude that I don’t need any further practice and I won’t improve, leading to another disappointment next time I take the test, or robbing me of the motivation to give it another try (“It is all unfair, what is the point?”). So, a belief in my own perfection or invulnerability won’t help me. Rather, a belief that I am skilled and resourceful, just the kind of person who learns from her mistakes, and I will pass the exam next time, will come in handy. Even if the belief is optimistically-biased and to some extent illusory, and I am not as resourceful as I think I am, believing that I am will support my motivation to continue practising and help me improve my driving as a result.

The belief that was optimistically-biased to start with will become more and more realistic over time, because I am ready to change myself in order to change the outcome of my efforts, practising until I actually become a better driver and my chances of success increase. Optimism is never a guarantee of success, but it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Isn’t that what agency is all about, intervening on ourselves and our environment to make the world closer to how we’d like it? Sounds like a good life to me.

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