Are you a pessimist or an optimist? When you’ve eaten all the chocolate-drizzled whipped cream and upper icy midsection of your Venti Soy Mocha Bananarama Frappuccino, is that cup half empty or is it half full of stuff you probably shouldn’t be drinking at the start of your day?
Or perhaps you’re neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but a genuine specimen of that rare species in the middle known as “realists.” For you, that 16oz cup is not half empty, and it isn’t half full, either. No, it is somehow both empty and full simultaneously, a profound reconciliation of opposites that transcends ordinary comprehension. If this sounds familiar, and you’re able to smoothly traverse the fine razor’s edge between life’s daily onslaught of polarities, then I wish you all the best with that. Most of us, unfortunately, remain stuck on one side or the other —statistically far more likely to be looking at the world through either rose-colored glasses or ones with a darker tint.
Indeed, according to cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot, purveyor of these statistics, the vast majority of us—a full 80%—are living out our lives in a rosey-hued world, which is true even of those who don’t think of themselves as being particularly upbeat or inspired (though if you become depressed to any degree, you’ll soon begin sliding down the color-saturation scale).
In a fascinating new TED Talk bearing the same title as her 2011 book, The Optimism Bias, Sharot shares her research into the overwhelming tendency towards optimism that most of us enter this world with as our default neurochemical factory setting. Her stats are surprising and amusing, revealing that our tendency to look on the bright side almost always flies in the face of all reason, evidence, and logic. We deflect negativity, holding fast to a deep sense of possibility, positivity, and our own “unique ability,” as Sharot puts it, to thwart the statistics. We assume, for instance, that stats proving that 30% of the population will contract some form of cancer are believable enough, but they don’t necessarily apply to us. That other guy, though, over there in the corner, quietly sipping his Grande Sugar Latte? Well, hopefully they’ll detect it early…
In general, Sharot says, we almost always overestimate the chances of positive things happening to us, and we underestimate the chances of encountering the not-so-positive things. She believes that this innate, irrational proclivity towards positivity can be correlated with human beings’ deep love of positive anticipation itself. “Whatever happens, whether you succeed or you fail,” she says, “people with high expectations always feel better.” We are geared to face forward, to aim high and envision a better future, even when the actual hands dealt by reality are stacked against us more often than not. And that consistent desire to keep on believing in the inherent goodness of life, against all odds, tends to make the most optimistic people the happiest of all.
Watch Sharot’s TED Talk below: