Why we’re hard-wired for hope

Why we’re hard-wired for hope
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Why we’re hard-wired for hope
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Updated 02 March 2016

Why we’re hard-wired for hope

Why we’re hard-wired for hope

We have a tendency to be optimistic but most of us are not aware about it. Yes, indeed, whether we are eight or eighty, we wear rose-tinted glasses. This is known as the optimism bias which Tali Sharot describes in her book ‘The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain’ as “an inclination to overestimate the likelihood of encountering positive events in the future and to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events.”
As we grow older, we should be wiser and be able to distinguish between the harsh reality and the world full of hope that we believe is real. The author, one of the most innovative neuroscientists at work today, provides some fascinating insight into her research on optimism, memory and emotion. Tali Sharot argues that optimism might be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired in our brain where it creates our hopes and dreams.
Optimism can even transform predictions into reality. When the Lakers won the NBA championship after defeating the Boston Celtics in 1987, everyone wanted to know if the Lakers would be able to win the championship a second time since no team had managed a repeat since the Boston Celtics won twice in a row in 1969. The Lakers was a great team with renowned players like Magic Johnson, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar but it was their head coach, Pat Riley who created a buzz by telling a reporter that he guaranteed his team would win the NBA championship again next year.
Predicting your team will win does not necessarily make it so. However, a prediction has an influence on the event it predicts because people’s behavior is determined by their subjective perception of reality. Riley’s statement was false at the time it was made because no event is predetermined. No one can know what the future will hold. Nevertheless by pointing to a new behavior, that is rigorous training and lack of compromise, the claim resulted in a repeat championship.”Therefore, believing in a positive outcome will enhance the probability that the desired outcome will be realized” explains Sharot.
But what happens when positive expectations do not lead to positive outcomes and cause disappointment? Is it not better to hold lower expectations in order to protect ourselves from frustration? The truth is that low expectations do not diminish the pain of failure and often lead to worse results.
Researchers have found that people who react to illness with passive acceptance of their own impending death die prematurely. On the other hand, optimists exercise more, are more likely to reduce their body-fat level, take more vitamins and eat low fat diets. The result is that optimists live longer and pessimists die younger. Optimists also experience faster recovery after coronary bypass surgery than pessimists and are less likely to be rehospitalized. Underestimating the probability of future adverse events reduces our level of stress and anxiety which is beneficial to our health.
“By definition, optimists are people who hold positive expectations of the future. They expect to do well in life, have good relationships, and be productive, healthy, and happy.
Because optimists expect to do better and be healthier, they have fewer subjective reasons for worry and despair. The result? They are less anxious and adjust better to stress factors…”
A survey conducted by the British research company Ipsos MORI revealed that people believe the following five factors are most likely to enhance our happiness; in order of importance, they are: more time with the family, earning more money, better health, more time with friends, and more traveling.
The factor that is most debated is the relationship between happiness and wealth. Are we happier when we have more money? Many studies point out that people who earn more feel more anger and anxiety so why do we still want to earn more money when earning more does not make us happy?
“We may desire to own a new home, have a fancier car, go on vacation more often, eat at high-end restaurants, and buy expensive suits. However, once we have all of this, within months we acclimate and the extra cash no longer contributes significantly to our level of happiness” says Tali Sharot.
Furthermore a higher salary results in longer working hours and greater responsibilities. While this shows that there is not a clear relationship between wealth and well-being, people strongly believe that such a relationship does exist and that when you earn more money, you are in a better mood.
“The optimism bias is a crucial ingredient for keeping us happy. When people perceive the future accurately, when they are well aware that none of the things people assume will make them happy is likely to have any lasting significance on their wellbeing, when they take off their rose-tinted glasses and see things more clearly, they become depressed, clinically depressed”
Another case of optimism bias concerns our decisions. Why is it that we value things even more after we have selected them? We can spend hours debating which pair of shoes we should buy but once we have made a decision we are genuinely convinced that our choice is the best.
Modern society presents us with more choices than ever. If we start wondering whether we made the right choice, we would feel anxious, confused, regretful and sad.
Winston Churchill said to the gathering at the Lord Mayor of London’s banquet in 1954: “For myself I am an optimist, it does not seem to be much use being anything else” in other words, Churchill believed that a pessimist will see the difficulty in every opportunity and thus will be unlikely even to try, while an optimist will see the opportunity in every difficulty.
Optimism “prevents us from viewing our options in life as somewhat limited. As a result, stress and anxiety are reduced, physical and mental health is improved, and the motivation to act and be productive is enhanced. In order to progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative, not just any old realities but better realities and we need to believe them to be possible”.
This book is easy to read and most of all it makes you feel good. Tali Sharot takes an in-depth look at how our brain generates hopes and what happens when it fails. We are told once and for all that optimism plays a crucial role in our life.

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