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Optimism, denial and hope

5 Sep

Hope‘It’s seeing and not seeing at the same time’. This was how the British psychotherapist Adam Phillips characterised the psychological response of denial, in a BBC radio 4 programme last week. Sometimes denial can be healthy, Phillips added. There are situations when it may be the best way we have of coming to an accommodation with a disturbing issue or event. And in order to deny something, we do at least have to acknowledge that it exists.

So the effects of denial depend very much on how far we take this form of self-deception.  

The radio programme in question was ‘Knowing and not knowing’, presented by Isabel Hardman as part of her series ‘The Age of Denial’ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00035nx). Hardman went on to talk to Tali Sharot, professor of neuroscience at University College London, and author of the book The optimism bias: why we’re wired to look on the bright side. According to Sharot, 80% of us are hard-wired with an optimism bias, while 10% have a pessimism bias,  and 10% have no bias at all. Being an optimist, she says, ‘doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a happy person, a smiley person’. It’s true that optimists do tend to be happier. But being optimistic isn’t about now, it’s about our expectations of the future. Sharot believes that what keeps optimists happy is anticipation: they are looking forward to positive outcomes.

Since expectations are generally better than the actual outcomes, Hardman chips in, why aren’t 80% of us disappointed most of the time? Sharot’s answer is that optimists tend to learn from what happens to them. For example, an optimist may believe that she is going to do very well in an exam she’s just taken. If the results turn out to be not as good as she expected, she’s already anticipating the next challenge, and she resolves to study harder.   So failure doesn’t reduce her sense of well being. She simply pins her hopes, once again, on future success.

Sharot thinks that our tendency towards optimism is a factor in human evolution. It reduces stress and anxiety, and enhances motivation. It also makes us willing to explore and to innovate.

This link to evolution was examined in more detail when Hardman talked to Ajit Varki, a professor of medicine at the University of San Diego in California. Varki sees our capacity for denial as an in-built response which helped to keep evolution going. There was a time when human beings became aware of their own mortality, Varki says, and this would have caused great anxiety. The individuals who first developed this awareness and, alongside it, a ‘facile ability to ignore reality’ were more likely to survive. Knowing that we were subject to death helped to protect us from danger, while simultaneously pretending that it would never happen to us saved us a great deal of distress. In other words, denial gave us the ability to carry on. It had huge evolutionary advantages.

Sharot’s ideas in particular made me think once again about the value of hope. If she’s right, then the fact that hope for the future often leads to disappointment isn’t detrimental to our personal happiness.  Hope may be absurd, as Albert Camus observed, but it could be the thing that protects our well being.

Let’s assume for now that I myself am one of the hard-wired pessimists. Actually I’m never sure about this, but it may well be my tendency towards pessimism that makes me come back, as usual, to the problem of complacency, and the global dangers of happiness. Sharot thinks that the optimism bias makes us underestimate the likelihood of negative events, such as cancer, a car crash, or getting divorced. ‘Oh I know nearly half my friends have gone through a marriage break-up,’ we say to ourselves as we walk down the aisle, ‘but that isn’t going to happen to me.’ 

On a personal level this response may be all to the good. But on the level of the wider community it might be extremely damaging.  extinction rebellionI’m writing this at the end of two weeks of protest in London and elsewhere orchestrated by Extinction Rebellion. What’s going through my mind at the moment is that optimism probably keeps most of us believing  that the planet isn’t going to be destroyed by climate change. ‘Oh it will probably never happen,’ we think. In fact, we’re just hoping that it isn’t going to happen. We’re in denial.

And we’re almost certainly wrong.

Happy as sandboys

9 Dec

ostrich

The other day I mentioned to my friend Janet that Brexit still isn’t making UK citizens unhappy, at least not according to this year’s well-being stats. Her immediate response was, ‘Well that’s because they’ve got their heads in the sand, isn’t it?’

A good point – and one that for me reawakens the whole ‘Is happiness a good thing?’ debate. Few people in Britain can pretend that Brexit doesn’t exist as an issue – it’s been well nigh impossible to avoid the topic during the last three years. But many of us have found that it’s had little impact on our individual happiness levels.  It’s generally the stuff that directly affects us  which governs our sense of well-being: the things that really matter to us are our mental and physical health, and our relationships at home, in our workplaces and in the wider community (see Richard Layard, this blog, 7 June). So far Brexit hasn’t changed anyone’s life in these areas – perhaps because it hasn’t happened yet.

The writer and humorist Clive James wouldn’t have been surprised by this. When he paused to reflect on periods in the past when he was probably happy, he used to find happiness so absurdly self-centred that it made him unhappy just to think about it. ‘Your moments of happiness are not only fleeting, but meaningless in the context of the sufferings of others,’ James concluded (Is happiness enough? A Point of View, 2007, repeated on Radio 4 on 1 December 2019). 

As usual, this kind of reflection puts me in mind of Anton Chekhov, who believed that we’re only able to enjoy happiness because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence (this blog, 10 September 2016, 28 July 2013). And though you’d need a mountain of sand to hide the Brexit issue from the British people, climate change is another matter – most of us find it pretty easy to ignore the problem. As one of the contributors to ‘Start the Week’ said on the radio this morning – in a discussion of  all types of inundation –  ‘If it isn’t happening to you, you don’t think about it.’  While Janet and I were having our conversation about heads in the sand, parts of South Yorkshire were under water, Delhi was smothered in deadly smog, and in Venice  the floods had swept into St Mark’s Basilica. But these events didn’t stop us having a lovely lunch, and finding pleasure in each other’s company. This failure to be downhearted may be inevitable. Hopefully it won’t prevent us from taking action. 

Footnote  Ostriches, I learn from the net, probably don’t hide their heads in the sand, they just look as though they’re doing it. And sandboys were happy because in the 19th century they were employed to spread sand on pub floors to absorb the spills, and were paid in ale. (Which may have been preferable to being sent up chimneys.) I’m rather resistant to the notion that people may need to be drunk in order to be happy, but I do know that in my case a drink or three certainly helps. 

More stuff on stuff

9 Nov

The debate about whether stuff can make you happy has been intensified recently by the latest terrifying predictions on climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by almost fifty percent by 2030  if we’re to avert global environmental catastrophe, including the loss of every single coral reef, the disappearance of  Arctic ice, and the destruction of small island states (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report)

People of my generation have got used to thinking (guiltily) that this level of catastrophe isn’t going to happen in our lifetimes.  But if we’ve only got twelve years, then it’s quite possible that it will. 

not buying clothesThe slightly-less-than- appalling news is that we can all do a bit to try to make things better.  Eat less meat, drive our cars less, insulate our homes.  Rather more challenging from my point of view is the advice sent in by one Guardian reader:  never buy anything new until the old one breaks, including clothes. 

My clothes hardly ever break. And I’ve certainly got more than enough to last me the rest of my life. Does that mean I can’t buy any more, ever?  Not a happy thought as far as I’m concerned.