Is Optimism the Key to Success or a Dangerous Illusion

We’re surrounded by optimism. It’s in commercials and ad campaigns, it’s the 11 billion dollar self-help industry, and it’s something famous and highly successful people talk about. It’s so prevalent that a lot of people believe success to be a result of optimism.

So what is optimism and is it really necessary for success?

Think for a second about life without optimism. Imagine a world where you always accept the information in front of you. Where there is no aspiration, no belief that you can be better. A place where you face the harsh realities of the world, knowing you have a 30% chance of getting cancer.

Wouldn’t that be soul crushing? Every day facing the multitude of never-ending probabilities stacked against you?

Enter the Optimism bias

We can’t face all the realities of life without becoming incredibly depressed. We’d never start a business, or reach for the highly improbable if we had to face these realities. This in part is why we’ve got an optimism bias. This bias lets us see the odds and believe that they apply to someone else. We can look at the odds of getting cancer and think to ourselves “that’s for everyone else I’m not going to get cancer.”

You might be thinking that sounds delusional. You’d be right; our optimism bias does cloud our judgment. By how much?

In a study conducted on U.S. college students, 93% of respondents believed that they were above average drivers. In another survey conducted by two Ohio researchers, 25% of the people surveyed believed that they were in the top 1% of getting along with others.

Pessimism, is it the way to go?

If optimism is at times delusional, is pessimism a better alternative? Interestingly, people with depression can more accurately predict future events. Unfortunately, this ability comes at a large cost. In the ebook The Science of Optimism the renowned neuroscientist Tali Sharot very eloquently explains the downsides:

The problem with pessimistic expectations, such as those of the clinically depressed, is that they have the power to alter the future; negative expectations shape outcomes in a negative way. Not everyone agrees with this assertion. Some people believe the secret to happiness is low expectations. If we don’t expect greatness or find love or maintain health or achieve success, we will never be disappointed. If we are never disappointed when things don’t work out and are pleasantly surprised when things go well, we will be happy. It’s a good theory — but it’s wrong. Research shows that whatever the outcome, whether we succeed or we fail, people with high expectations tend to feel better. At the end of the day, how we feel when we get dumped or win an award depends mostly on how we interpret the event.

In other words we get what we expect and if you expect the world to be a brutal and unforgiving place you’ll see those things over and over again. I don’t know about you but I’m not willing to make that tradeoff.

This leaves us in a bit of conundrum. We can see the world as it always is at the cost of our happiness or we can live in a world that isn’t entirely grounded in reality. Neither option is ideal. Luckily there are a lot of benefits to being a bit delusion as Sharot explains:

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.

I think we can all agree that these are worthwhile trade-offs. Living a happier, healthier life with less stress is something that we should all aspire to.

There is one additional, extremely compelling argument for optimism and it comes from a recent study conducted by Bengtsson. In the study, he primed two different student groups with the words “clever” and “stupid.” The students were then administered a test while inside of a brain imaging scanner (fMRI machine).

The results are mind-boggling. When the students primed with “clever” got something wrong the anterior medial part of the prefrontal cortex lit up. This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for self-reflection and recognition. These students were dealing with the conflict between thinking they were clever and the reality of making a mistake on the test.

The group primed with “stupid” on the other hand showed no activity in this area of the brain. They didn’t even think about reflecting on the wrong answer. Tali Sharot beautifully describes what’s happening here: “A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it to “Take notice — wrong answer.”

In other words, if you have a pessimistic outlook on life, over time you’ll fail to learn from your mistakes. Your brain will literally refuse to process the information because your viewpoint stops the appropriate processes from starting. It’s like being in a car without headlights, sure you can drive but driving at night will be next to impossible.

I hope we can all agree that without the ability to learn from mistakes success becomes nigh impossible. If we can agree on that then the answer to our question about optimism is a resounding yes. You need to be optimistic to be successful because to be successful you need to constantly learn and adapt.

I get that this is daunting. One of my first reactions to this news was to get frustrated and think that I’d never be successful because I’m too much of a pessimist. Don’t let this thought take root.

Instead, do something about your pessimism. Cultivate a more optimistic viewpoint. Push back when you find yourself viewing the world as a soul-crushing place. How? Recent research shows us that a Positive Psychology exercise called Best Possible Future Self (BPS) is shown to increase optimism in the short term. It’s also an incredibly fun exercise that I promise you will enjoy.

Your Scientifically Proven Optimism Exercise

  1. Find a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed for 10–20 minutes
  2. Think about your best possible self for one minute. Imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You’ve worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all the goals of your life. Think of this as the realization of your dreams and that you’ve reached your full potential.
  3. Now that the minute is up write for 10 minutes about what you imagined. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation. Be as creative and imaginative as you’d like.

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