We’re hardwired for hope in the worst of times.
- The optimism bias enables us to presume that opportunities, potential, and good things may await us.
- True hope takes into account the real threats that exist and seeks to navigate the best path around them.
- Pessimism is a failure of the imagination, reflecting an unwillingness to keep an open mind.
“The soul refuses limits and always affirms an optimism not a pessimism,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson.
When the Oracle of Concord made this statement, with troops on the battlefields of the Civil War, he wasn’t suggesting a smiley-face optimism—everything’s going to be OK—but was pointing instead to the empirical fact that things in nature are always surprising us, and we have no idea what’s around the corner. Bad things often lead to positive outcomes, and paradox is the price of admission.
Optimists of Emerson’s kind do not deny the dark side of life; instead, they choose not to lose sight of the good, the true, and the beautiful even when things fall apart. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado captured this bias toward hope when he wrote:
Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
There’s nothing Pollyanna in this poem affirming the capacity for human transformation. It suggests, instead, that pessimism is a failure of the imagination, an unwillingness to acknowledge the potential for change, a resignation to the blinkered view.
But something in us wants to see. We want to rise to higher ground. There’s buoyancy in the human spirit. “The thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson called it. It’s the force that drives us upward when we’re underwater and makes us kick our way to the surface, the push against gravity that keeps us alive, the energy of optimism itself.
The negativity bias is well known to us, but how many are aware of the optimism bias?
This hardwired aspect of human psychology enables us to presume that opportunities, potential, and good things may await us.
It presumes, when it sees a pile of shit, that there must be a pony somewhere close by. Without the optimism bias, we would never have survived as a species on this unpredictable planet. In a fluctuating environment, we need the ability to imagine alternative possibilities. “Hope keeps us moving forward, rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge,” as one researcher in optimism put it.
As long as our hope isn’t pie-in-the-sky, optimism can be a helpmeet. “True hope takes into account the real threats that exist,” writes surgeon Jerome Groopman, “and seeks to navigate the best path around them.” For this to happen, we need to face the facts while leaving a mental door ajar for everything that we don’t know yet.
This is far harder for some of us than others. Everyone has her own SWB—state of subjective well-being—that falls on the scale between sunny and glum. We default to our SWB whether good things or tragic situations happen to us. By understanding your own SWB, you can see through your pessimism bias when it conceals reality from you. In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius gave us the parable of the fool who passes a fresh spring every day but sees only a lousy puddle.
There he stands, this pessimist beside the spring, cursing as fresh water gushes forth. “He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained,” Marcus wrote. “Not a cistern but a perpetual spring.”
We miss the abundance and beauty around us when we focus on the darkness
In truth, the vast majority of us are—in our messy, imperfect lives—extremely blessed. The longer we survive, the more certain we become of this blessing. Gratitude takes root in the heart. We see the world through the eyes of love.
In Terence des Pres’ book about the Holocaust, The Survivor, he captures this efflorescence:
Survivors are more urgently rooted in life than the rest of us. Their will to survive is one with the thrust of life itself, as stubborn as the upsurge of spring.
When you read those words, your limbs grow longer; your back gets straighter; your eyes take in the world around you with a voluptuous gulp. The verdancy in you surges up to meet the moment. Optimism is “the green fuse that drives the flower,” the force that pulls us toward the light.
Pessimism survives by convincing us that it is the voice of reality. The pessimist tells you that whoever chooses not to hold their cynical, steely, gloomy view is nothing short of a ninny. No one wants to look gullible, fatuous, or ill-informed, so it’s easier to go along with the pessimists than risk revealing that you have hope.
Realistic optimism is the rigorous spiritual practice of bringing your thoughts back again and again from the precipice of doom to the doorway of possibility. We have no idea what lies ahead. We only know that there will be change, and remembering that—never forgetting—can save your life when hope disappears