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📉 And You're Way Too Optimistic 📉
“Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.” ― Joyce Carol Oates
Remember how most of us are average?
“Sigh. How could I forget?”
And remember how most of us think we are above average despite the evidence?
“Josh, you’re a real buzzkill.”
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Believe it or not, I’m an optimist. Or rather, I’m an unusual optimist.
While I love doom-scrolling as much as the next survivalist (a la Roscoe Bartlett), ultimately, I define optimism as the belief that one can solve a problem if they are willing to understand it. While optimism tends to be associated with making hopeful predictions about the future, it’s time we explore why we tend to be more optimistic about the future than the data warrants and how optimism is as much about how we respond to negative events as it is about a sunny disposition.
How likely are you to die?
“Josh, I thought you said you’d make me feel better?”
Patience, young grasshopper…
Actuarial tables aside, unless you are Enoch or Elijah,1, the odds of you dying eventually are 100%.
However, you probably never think about this. In fact, many of us secretly assume that maybe, just maybe, we will be the exception to the rule.
(I know I do.)
On Kol Nidre, the hazzan asks permission to pray with הָעֲבַרְיָנִים, what most siddurim translate as “the transgressors.” I prefer a translation used by the late Rabbi Alan Lew that defines הָעֲבַרְיָנִים as “those who are passing through.”2 All of us want to be the center of the universe, but the reality is that we are just mortals passing through this world, trying to do the best we can.
Like my unjustified belief that I could be immortal, the optimism bias is a misalignment between hopes and statistical reality. 100% of people die; I have no reason to believe I will be the exception, but I will likely believe I could be anyway. And when we turn to less likely yet still highly likely events, like losing a job or developing common health problems, Neil Feinstein finds that people are more likely to assume that bad events in the future will not happen to them, even when, statistically, most people will experience this event at some point.3
But I promised good news, so here’s where things get interesting.
Our friend Tali Sharot argues that “The ability to anticipate is the hallmark of cognition.”4 When I assess my or someone else’s abilities, I focus on how well I can think through the future, anticipate problems before they become problems, and predict how they might respond when obstacles arise. And Sharot recognizes that “One puzzle of optimism is…that people maintain overly positive expectations despite a lifetime of experience with reality.”5
However, while Sharot recognizes that delusional optimism can be harmful, research also suggests that “overestimating one’s probability of success is advantageous in a world of uncertainty and competition.”6 While we are inclined to be optimistic when the odds suggest otherwise, those who understand how to harness optimism in a productive way have a systematic advantage that can only be utilized when rejecting magical thinking. While no amount of learning will make it more likely that you are above average from a statistical standpoint, recognizing this weakness is in and of itself a strength.
And this may be why our first step to harnessing optimism is recognizing how we’ve misdefined it.
Seligman is credited as one of the founders of the "positive psychology” movement. In Learned Optimism, Seligman contends that the key distinction between optimists and pessimists is their "explanatory style." When confronted with a setback, a pessimist attributes it to "permanent causes" such as their own inadequacy or incompetence. Conversely, an optimist attributes setbacks to "temporary causes," prioritizing the situational context rather than assuming that setbacks result from unalterable traits.9 He writes:
“Your habitual way of explaining bad events, your explanatory style, is more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought learned in childhood and adolescence. Your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world--whether you think you are valuable and deserving or worthless and hopeless.”10
Moreover, Seligman argues that this explanatory style extends to how optimists and pessimists explain positive events. The pessimist is more likely to explain positive events due to permanent causes (e.g., “I’m so brilliant!”), and the optimist is more likely to ascribe good events to specific actions (e.g., “I did X, Y, Z really well, and had A, B, and C happen, as a result.)
Turning to organizations, generally, it is easier to be a part of an organization constantly moving upward and expanding than one constantly struggling and contracting. However, when good things happen, and organizations ascribe success to brilliance rather than context, the organization quickly loses the ability to understand how to respond when things go poorly. And when an organization struggles, attributing those struggles to stupid, lazy, incompetent people only perpetuates a cycle that could be broken with a different perspective.
And this is why I’m an unusual optimist. True or not, I believe that most problems can be solved if they are properly understood and addressed, and when I feel like I have a strong understanding of a problem, I will move mountains to make a difference. And I suspect I’m not the only one…
Step Into the Happiness Lab
What I Read This Week
In Praise of Heroic Masculinity: I did not love this headline, although I enjoyed the article. Toxic masculinity is terrible for a reason, but strength can be transformative for all gender identities when properly harnessed.
Female Nonprofit CEOs Earn 73 Cents on the Dollar to Male CEOs: Sadly, Candid’s nonprofit compensation report finds that while the wage gap in smaller nonprofits decreased by six cents since 2011, the wage gap in larger nonprofits has actually increased. Buying the report is expensive, but the executive summary tells a disturbing story.
Narcissism is a Widely Misunderstood Phenomenon: “Narcissism” is a widely used term, but far more complicated than its liberal usage would suggest. Here’s a deeper analysis.
Text with Jesus: Nope, not a typo.
In the Tanakh, the text never tells us that Enoch or Elijah died, it only tells us that God “took” them. Could this be a rose by any other name, and “take” is just a way of saying they died? Possibly. But the fact that we are not explicitly told of their deaths leads to incredible mystical speculation.
My favorite fact about Enoch? His son Methuselah “only” lived 969 years, thereby making Methuselah the strangest disappointment in human history by not outliving his immortal father.
Sharot devotes considerable attention to how optimism is helpful in terms of mental health, but it’s not where I want to focus in this article. That said, it’s fascinating and you should consider reading the entire article.
I have written about Seligman in several publications focusing on his understanding of explanatory style. I am doing my best not to self-plagiarize, but I cannot rule it out.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Seligman’s research has been used for some nefarious purposes, particularly regarding torture policies in the United States following September 11, 2011.
For a relatively balanced take on the darker side of Seligman’s research, consider reading this piece in The New Yorker by our friend Maria Konnikova.
In essence, what Seligman found in his early research was that over time humans and animals can develop something called “learned helplessness,” where they reach a psychological point where hope of progress seems so remote that they simply give up the idea of changing their circumstances. While Seligman’s purpose in this research how to help patients overcome learned helplessness, post-9/11 reports regarding CIA torture policies found evidence that one of the tactics employed with suspected terrorists was inducing them to reach a state of learned helplessness such that they would cooperate with their interrogators.
I would employ this distinction all the time when I was a classroom teacher when a student failed one of my tests. Failing a test is a bad thing. However, the pessimist looks at failing a test and explains this event by saying “I’m stupid.” In contrast, the optimist looks at failing a test and explains this event by saying “I did not study enough.” One explanation is permanent, the other contextual.
Been a while since our last reference to The Simpsons.