Promoting a newly commissioned book, The Optimism Bias, the editor describes the book as ‘a fascinating investigation of how our brains are wired for positive predictions and why the illusion of optimism may be central for our survival.’ I take issue with one word – illusion. It’s kin to another word, happiness, which is also increasingly defined as an artificial, manufactured state. There is indeed false optimism, and false happiness. Both are transient, both can rise with the sun and disappear with the first cloud. Neither are the real thing and yet that’s how they’re treated. All sorts of guff gets talked about creating conditions for greater happiness, and at the more academic end of the spectrum neuroscience is opening up new pathways and it may be social engineering is just around the corner.
God help us. The answers are much simpler if we’re open to them.
If we’re tied to expectations then of course we’ll be up and down as they happen or they crash-land. If we have a saner and more measured view we’ll find that optimism and happiness arise naturally out of our understanding of our lives. Expectations are illusions, dispense with them and there’s a new freedom to accept what happens and be grateful for that. We should influence how our lives work out as much as we can (making our focus opportunity, capability, free expression, open spaces for body and mind, not self-indulgence), yes, of course, but we shouldn’t get hung up or brought down if events don’t work out as we’d wish. Go beyond a reliance on expectations and we’ll find optimism becomes our natural state and we’ve a chance of real happiness. Which sad to say doesn’t come about as a result of winning an argument, watching TV, passing an exam, even making the best love of your life, or even beyond that (though some may dispute it), finding God.
It comes to us because we’re open to it, not because we seek it.