Archive | optimism/pessimism RSS feed for this section

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’ ( 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.

Say NEJ to positive thinking?

1 Mar


Bucking the current trend for candle-lit cosiness, the Danish psychology professor Svend Brinkmann  has written a book called  Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, which rubbishes the whole business of  looking on the bright side.  Positive thinking, Brinkmann argues, is a maudlin distraction from the important things in life.  Rather like Oliver Burkeman (this blog, 29 Nov 2016), he maintains that  instead we should  be facing  up to the negative.

Last week, Radio 4’s Today programme pitted Prof Brinkmann against  Anthony Seldon, one of the pioneers of happiness teaching in this country.

These days, we’re not allowed to be unhappy, Brinkmann said. This is nonsense. We need  to understand the negative things in our world,  not cloud them in a sugar-coating of positive thinking. Nietzsche, he told us, maintained that  ‘man does not strive for happiness, only the Englishman does that’. This came as a surprise to me, and to the show’s presenter John Humphreys; but apparently Nietzsche was offering here a critique of the British philosophy of utilitarianism.  (I looked it up later: Nietzsche said this in The Twilight of the Idols). According  to Brinkmann, positive thinking is an ideology which grew out of an individualistic society, and it should  be resisted. People craving self-improvement are bound to fail, and then they will feel worse.

Seldon at first appeared to agree with him. An obsession with the positive can infantilise us and waft us away into la-la land, he said. But true positive psychology, rather than infantilising us, teaches us to cope with the terrible things that we’re almost certain  to encounter in life. He compared the traditional approach to therapy  with a waterfall: generally we wait till someone hits the bottom before we attempt to deal with the problem. By contrast positive psychology is  about prevention – about building the capacity to face adversity.

In the end there wasn’t that much disagreement between these two. Brinkmann  said he wasn’t really worried about positive psychology, but about the people who implement it  – about the coaches, team-leaders etc, who compel us to be upbeat all of the time. The defining mood of our age – if you’re unhappy you’re a loser – does not allow us to focus on the negative aspects of life.

But good positive  psychology, Seldon countered, tells us to embrace the real.

I like and respect Brinkmann’s  enthusiastic acceptance of the negative. But I also find it hard to disagree with Seldon. In the end it probably comes down to emphasis. We need to steer clear of the idea that everything in the world’s garden is simply lovely – it isn’t. To believe that we can think ourselves into being wonderfully fulfilled all of the time is also clearly idiotic. Ditto, the belief that every single person on the planet can be similarly happy and fulfilled, if only he or she tries hard enough.

But at the same time, we do surely have to try to steer people away from the pits of despair  into which it is so easy to fall. Mental health problems are not a joke, and if positive psychology can help some people survive them, I’m not inclined to argue against it. As long, that is, as it doesn’t blind us to all the real suffering that goes on around us, day in, day out. 

Abandon hope

29 Nov

oliver-burkeman I’m pleased to learn that journalist Oliver Burkeman shares my sceptical attitude to hope. Last week on Radio 4, in a series on the power of negative thinking, he pointed out that relentless optimism can be quite dangerous. If you’re a safety supervisor on an oil rig, for example, just hoping that everything will be OK would be really stupid. Rather, you have to plan for disaster. If the worst case scenario actually happens, then you’ll be far better equipped to deal with it.  

Hoping for the best can be a sloppy approach on quite a few levels of existence. It doesn’t work all that well in your personal life, and it certainly doesn’t work  if you’re trying to tackle major global problems. Climate disaster isn’t going to be averted if we think, ‘Oh, it probably won’t happen.’  Hope robs us of our agency – our will and power to change things. Don’t shrug and hope for the best – do everything you can to halt it. 

Burkeman ended his programme with a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca, my favourite constructive pessimist. ‘Cease to hope,’ Seneca wrote, ‘and you will cease to fear.’ (Moral Letters 5)

Are the French less miserable than they used to be? The battle against positive thinking in France.

20 Dec

Last Monday The Times reported that French intellectuals are up in arms about the growing popularity among their fellow citizens of books about happiness  (‘Intellectuals horrified as ordinary French people look on bright side of life’, December 15th 2014) .

Self-help works like And don’t forget to be happy, by psychiatrist Christophe André, and Christine Lewicki’s I’m giving up complaining, are apparently flying off the shelves. This development is denounced by French theorists as an outbreak of American-style positive thinking quite unsuited to the Gallic temperament.

French economist Claudia Senik disagrees. She has argued in the past that the French probably need  to cultivate a bit of optimism, but that their education system in particular militates against this (see this blog, April 5 2013).  ‘The French are in a spiral of self-fulfilling pessimism,’ she says.  ‘Their high social ideal is unrealistic and this makes them unhappy.’

Some French people may well benefit from cheering up a bit. But I do tend to side with the intellectuals in this. Not because trying hard to be happy can in the long run make you miserable – it may in fact work well for some people, and I hope that it does. But I also believe that a streak of pessimism is vital if we’re to avoid becoming smug, self-satisfied, and resistant to change. One reason why the French have produced so many great artists and philosophers is probably that they’ve never been prone to settling back on their chaises longues and thanking heaven for their good fortune and general contentment. 

Beckett’s Happy Days. Do we need to know if we’re unhappy?

5 Apr


I’m not sure why it hasn’t occurred to me before to look at Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days in this blog, but it certainly seemed like an obvious choice after I’d seen Juliet’s Stevenson’s wonderful performance as Winnie at the Young Vic last month. The piece’s idiosyncratic take on happiness is an important one, I think.

          Winnie is a woman who spends the first Act of the play immured to her waist in a mound of earth; by the start of the second Act, the mound has risen to her neck. She is a prisoner – in her marriage? her life? in the world? in Hell? – yet she remains resolutely cheerful. The only change that can possibly occur in her circumstances will definitely be for the worse. But nothing can dent her determination that the new day that has just dawned ‘is going to be a happy day! Another happy day.’

          Rather like the philosopher Epicurus (but probably with less intellectual justification) Winnie tells herself that if she isn’t in pain, then she must be having a good time. When at the beginning of the play she is examining the state of her teeth in a mirror, she exclaims,

‘ – no better – no worse – (lays down mirror) – no change – (wipes fingers on grass) – no pain – (looks for toothbrush) – hardly any – (takes up toothbrush) – a great thing that …’

One of her favourite expressions is, ‘Many mercies – great mercies’, and she finds these in everything, even in the fact that she is trapped under the burning sun, rather than in the freezing cold.

          Opinion is divided on the significance of Winnie’s attitude to her personal well-being. Is she fully aware of her situation, and should we therefore see her as displaying an admirable stoicism in the face of events beyond her control? Or is she being absurd, shutting her eyes to the true horror of what is happening to her? These questions link back to issues that I’ve touched on in the blog before. Is it right to disabuse people of their conviction that they’re happy, if they seem to us to be hideously misguided or oppressed? Ought we instead to leave them in blissful ignorance? (‘Work, love or progress’, 8 April 2013).  And is cock-eyed optimism a force for bad in the world, because it makes us complacent and blind to the suffering of others? (‘Anton Chekhov: does happiness matter?’, 28 July 2013; ‘let’s be cynical’, 15 July 2013).

          Whatever the answers are, Winnie’s approach to life definitely for me underlines the potential banality of the whole happiness question. Maybe happiness really isn’t the point, if we all end up being like the Winnies of this world.

          In the play Winnie’s happiness is to a very large extent bound up with the responses of her doltish husband Willie. Early on in the first Act, when Willie deigns to speak to her, she replies with, ‘Oh, you are going to talk to me today? this is going to be a happy day!’ And in Act 2, when Willie crawls over to her and manages to get out the word, ‘Win,’ the fact that she is paralyzed up to her chin does not stop her from coming out with her habitual, ‘This will have been another happy day!’

          Some feminists criticize the play for dwelling on this picture of a slavishly dependent woman, whose relationship with her unsatisfactory husband determines her sense of well-being. But for me it reflects the real-life position of many people (not just women) in our society for whom coupledom is the ‘sine qua non’ of their happiness. Whether this is to be deplored or not is another matter.

          Winnie’s nonsensical cheerfulness is most poignantly highlighted by her delight in her musical box, which tinkles out the tune of the Merry Widow waltz. When finally we hear the quavering voice of a woman who is trapped in the earth – earth which we know will eventually cover her – joining in with the words of this romantic song, surely most of us are moved to tears?

Love unspoken, faith unbroken, All life through.
Strings are playing, hear them saying,
“Love me true”.
Now the echo answers,
“Say you want me too”.
All the world’s in love with love
And I love you.

          Death, of course, can be the only outcome. Will Winnie make use of the friendly gun which she occasionally fishes out of her capacious bag? Or will she simply arrive, without trying, at the ‘happy day to come, when flesh melts at so many degrees’?

let’s be cynical

15 Jul

Last week in ‘The Guardian’ (Thursday July 11, 2013) the philosopher Julian Baggini celebrated the virtues of maintaining a healthy cynicism. At the same time he had a swipe at those peddlers of ‘sun-kissed fantasies’, the gurus of positive thinking. At its best, Baggini argues, cynicism is a greater force for progress than optimism. Why should we mindlessly try to convince ourselves that the world and everything in it are wonderful, when clearly they aren’t. That’s hardly rational, and isn’t going to promote worthwhile change. ‘We can’t make things better unless we see quite how bad they are, or do our best unless we guard against the worst.’

I agree with Baggini almost entirely. But I have just one reservation.  While it’s right to maintain a critical attitude towards institutions, groups and ideas in the world at large, perhaps we can be a little kinder towards the individuals with whom we come into personal contact (including perhaps ourselves). Being tolerant and forgiving as well as critical seems like another good rule for a healthy and intelligent approach to life.