As a die-hard optimist, although I think of myself as a realistic rather than idealistic one, I am always interested to hear author people’s views on optimism. This excellent Fast Company article by Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich takes a look at how optimism has played a role in his business success.
A NEW WAY TO LOOK AT OPTIMISM’S ROLE IN SUCCESS
WHY FOCUSING ON THE PERCENTAGE RATE YOU NEED TO SUCCEED INSTEAD EACH INDIVIDUAL SUCCESS OR FAILURE IS KEY TO NOT LOSING FAITH.
General Stockdale was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. After being tortured 22 times and losing many friends in prison, he eventually made it out alive.
A few decades later, Jim Collins, author of the famous book Good to Greatinterviewed Stockdale about his experiences as a prisoner of war. Stockdale gave lots of insightful answers about how he managed to survive torture, starvation, and other horrible conditions.
One line that stuck with me more than anything after this encounter, was his answer to the last question of the interview. It was a fairly obvious one that Collins asked: “Who didn’t make it out alive?”
Stockdale’s answer was blunt: “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
I couldn’t help but be deeply moved by this. I had always considered myself an optimist, as anyone out there striving for greatness might. But was I setting myself up for failure?
The Stockdale paradox: Faith trumps optimism
The answer, I discovered from Stockdale, is that it isn’t really about optimism versus pessimism. It’s about faith. Stockdale says:
“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
There is a very clear line between keeping faith and plain optimism that everything will be okay. The last words that Stockdale shared with Collins stress that more than anything else: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
The mirage of silver bullets in business
Stockdale’s story is insightful and entertaining. But how does this help us with the day-to-day challenges we have in our jobs, as entrepreneurs and people trying to succeed?
Answers to how Stockdale’s experience translates into business comes from ConstantContact CEO Gail Goodman. In a recent presentation, fittingly titled “The long, slow, SaaS ramp of death,” Goodman explained the hardships of the near-decade it took her company to build a great business.
Here is the long, slow, SaaS ramp of death:
At one point in the video, Goodman reminded me of Stockdale, just in the business context:
“What I hear today, when I talk to a lot of startup folks, is that they are looking for that silver bullet: “free,” “viral,” “network effect.” Maybe one in a thousand of us entrepreneurs will find that “flick-the-switch” solution. The rest of us actually have to work. For three years, I went into the boardroom and said we are about to sign ‘x,’ and it’s going to change everything. And it never happened.”
It brought to mind Stockdale’s optimists, the ones who eventually died of broken hearts. Goodman goes even further and lists the three most common mirages businesses fall for and often die pursuing:
Partners: No matter how many partnerships you manage to create, you always have to figure out yourself how to market your product. That one next product change: Adding that one new feature, one extra item, is going to make all the difference. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Going “viral”: A lot of people building businesses (including me) have a hard time understanding what “viral” actually means. At the core, the definition is that through the very act of using your product, more people will learn about it, like sending emails via Hotmail that tell others to use Hotmail.
Over and over, they have fallen for “just that one more thing” that is going to turn everything around, similar to Stockdale’s friends waiting for “just that next Christmas.”
Goodman concludes with one of the best tips for any business out there: “We’ve basically learned that there are no silver bullets. There is going to be no one thing, unless you get really lucky.”
Learning to work with the law of averages.
Over the past two years, during which we’ve worked to build Buffer to a humble 600,000 users and into a profitable company, I found one strategy that worked better than anything else.
It is what Jim Rohn called the law of averages. Rohn explains the parable of the sower and the reaper. First, the seed being sown falls on good ground, but the birds get it. Then it falls on shallow ground and can’t grow. Then on thorny ground, where it withers away. And only with the last attempt it falls on good ground and the seeds grow.
So we must shift our focus. We don’t want to look for which seeds thrive and which don’t. We want to know what the rate of success is.
To give you an example where this has worked extremely well for us, consider this:
When I first started our content marketing strategy at Buffer, I was always very frustrated when I didn’t get a response from a blog I wanted to write for. I would fuss about the email I had sent, about the person I contacted and so forth. Only when I accepted the failure rate, I was ready to move on to success. I found that I had to send 10 emails to get 3-4 responses for successfully submitting a guest article.
The same was true for press coverage. I found that only one out of five emails I sent to writers would get a response. And out of those responding only one out of three would do a story about us. That was the moment when I knew to get one article about Buffer in the press, I had to write 15 emails.
Partnerships? Same thing. Only one out of three attempts to create a partnership would actually work out. And I used that number to get however many we needed.
Whatever you do, try and find the percentage rate you need to succeed, instead of trying to succeed with each individual attempt.
It’s a small change in thinking that made huge difference for Stockdale, Goodman, and our company so far. If you have faith that you will eventually succeed, by changing and trying over and over, without being frustrated after each individual setback, that’s when things work out.
Then the fact that optimists lose (most of the time) isn’t so bleak, after all.
Want to live to a ripe old age? Having a positive outlook on life maybe the key to doing just that. The article below from CBS News looks at how optimism can lead to longevity. The TEDxWomen talk below by psychologist Laura Carstensen shows that not only does being optimistic make you live longer, but research shows that you also become happier and more content as you get older and are likely to have a more positive outlook on the world. Living to an old age does not mean that your quality of life has to diminish, on the contrary it is likely to increase. Enjoy the article and the video and let me know what you think.
Researchers discover optimism may lead to longevity
MONKEY BUSINESS IMAGES
(CBS News) The secret to a long life may be something as simple as a sunny disposition.
In a study published in the journal Aging on May 21, researchers surveyed people who were over the age of 95 and found that most of them had positive personality traits, making them upbeat and relaxed about life. That suggests personality traits such optimism could be part of the longevity genes mix, they said.
“When I started working with centenarians, I thought we’d find that they survived so long in part because they were mean and ornery,” Dr. Nir Barzila, the Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Chair of Aging Research, and director of Einstein’s Institute for Aging Research, said in the press release. “But when we assessed the personalities of these 243 centenarians, we found qualities that clearly reflect a positive attitude towards life. Most were outgoing, optimistic and easygoing. They considered laughter an important part of life and had a large social network. They expressed emotions openly rather than bottling them up.”
The study is part of Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Longevity Genes Project, which specifically looks at aging. Over 500 Ashkenazi Jews over the age of 95 along with 700 of their offspring have been involved in the project.
According to the researchers, approximately 53,000 people in the U.S. are over 100 years old, which accounts for 0.2 percent of the population. But, the number of people reaching 100 from America has increased 8 percent per year.
For this particular study, 243 Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews over the age of 95 were given a 98-point questionnaire that specifically looked at personality traits. Three-fourths of the group were women, and the average age was 97.6 years old. Since they were all the same ethnicity, it allowed researchers to compare results from a similar genetic pool.
What scientists found out was that many of the near-centenarians were optimistic, easygoing, liked to laughed and were outgoing than introverted. They also were more likely to express their emotions, rather than keeping it all inside.
Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University Medical Center, told HealthDay that the results about expressing how they felt were in line with several previous studies. One of Perls studies showed that those who were highly neurotic tended to dwell on things and internalize their stress.
“This can translate into increased risk for cardiovascular disease,” he said to HealthDay. “High extroversion may lead to a better ability to establish social support networks — which is very good for older people – and to be cognitively engaged.”
Perls suggested that activities like physical exercise, yoga, tai chi and laughing a lot could help relieve tension. Also, sleeping was shown to have some beneficial effect.
The good news is that if you aren’t exactly that ray of sunshine, you still have time to change. Barzilai said that some evidence shows that people can change their attitudes between the ages of 70 to 100, and it isn’t exactly know if the subjects were always optimistic their entire lives.
“Nevertheless, our findings suggest that centenarians share particular personality traits and that genetically-based aspects of personality may play an important role in achieving both good health and exceptional longevity,” he said in the press release.
Article originally published in CBS News on 30th May 2012
“When we recognize that we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly.” Laura Carstensen
“People talk about me being a paragon of optimism and hope and all that stuff. I have a really blessed life, I have an amazing life.” Michael J. Fox
In this feature for ABC News published on 18th June 2012, Russell Goldman looks at the actor Michael J. Fox who I mentioned in a previous post as being a poster boy for optimism. Read the article and watch his interview with ABC’s news anchor Diane Sawyer who featured him as her “Person of the Week” in her Friday night World News programme.
Michael J. Fox Looks Past Stem Cells in Search For Parkinson’s Cure
Michael J. Fox, whose turn from Parkinson’s disease patient to scientific crusader made him one of the country’s most visible advocates for stem cell research, now believes the controversial therapy may not ultimately yield a cure for his disease, he told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in an exclusive interview.
There have been “problems along the way,” Fox said of stem cell studies, for which he has long advocated. Instead, he said, new drug therapies are showing real promise and are “closer today” to providing a cure for Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative illness that over time causes the body to become rigid and the brain to shut down.
“Stem cells are an avenue of research that we’ve pursued and continue to pursue but it’s part of a broad portfolio of things that we look at. There have been some issues with stem cells, some problems along the way,” said Fox, who suffers from the diseases’ telltale tics and tremors.
“It’s not so much that [stem cell research has] diminished in its prospects for breakthroughs as much as it’s the other avenues of research have grown and multiplied and become as much or more promising. So, an answer may come from stem cell research but it’s more than likely to come from another area,” he said.
Tune in to “World News with Diane Sawyer” Friday at 6:30 p.m. E.T. to see more of Diane Sawyer’s interview with Michael J. Fox
Fox, who recently appeared in episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Good Wife,” has dedicated himself to finding a cure for Parkinson’s, the disease with which he was diagnosed in 1991.
Fox said he still strongly believes in stem cell research and government support of those studies, praising ongoing research at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital. When asked about earlier criticism he received from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh about his advocacy, Fox said it only “sharpens your resolve.”
Scientists are conducting research and looking for a cure on multiple fronts, Fox said, including drug therapies, experimental surgeries, and developing tests to help make earlier diagnoses.
To that end, his Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the largest private funder of Parkinson’s disease research worldwide, has recently launched an online initiative to increase studies across the country by pairing patients with clinical trials in their areas.
The Fox Trial Finder (Visit FoxTrialFinder.org for more info on clinical trial participation) harnesses the power of the Internet to find patients and, based on their profile of symptoms, pair them with research scientists conducting clinical trials.
Thirty percent of all clinical trials fail to recruit a single subject, according to the foundation’s web site, and many more, some 85 percent, are delayed because scientists are unable to find enough participants.
“People can fill out a form anonymously… and then we can let them know about… clinical trials happening in their area,” Fox said.
Some 200 trials are currently seeking recruits through the website, but one of the most promising will “try to find a biomarker for Parkinson’s, which is really important,” Fox said.
By the time Fox was diagnosed 20 years ago, he said, 80 percent of the dopamine cells in his brain – neurons instrumental in sending the signals that control movement – were depleted.
“We have no way to identify the disease before symptoms appear. If we can target progress along the way, we can arrest progress and eliminate the possibility of symptoms,” he said, adding that this area of research is “the most exciting.”
Fox, an actor who grew up in front of the camera on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties” and starred in the “Back to the Future” film franchise, worried about the future of his career after announcing his diagnosis in 1998 and leaving the hit show “Spin City.”
In the years since, he has led the Fox Foundation, which has donated more than $300 million to Parkinson’s research. In recent months, however, he has returned to acting more regularly, the result he says, of a new drug regimen that helps control his tics, or dyskinesia.
“I kind of stumbled onto a new combination of meds for what’s called dyskinesia… Now I thought, there’s no reason not to work so I started to accept more work. Larry David called and had a terrific idea and the ‘Good Wife’ is such a terrific show,” he said of his decisions to appear on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the CBS series “The Good Wife.”
Fox said that each morning he is uncertain exactly how his symptoms will affect him that day. Some mornings he can delay taking his first dose of medicine for a few hours, other days he expects a greater challenge.
“I don’t write off the day ahead of time because of that, it just means it’s going be tougher sledding,” he said.
Having struggled with the disease for years himself, Fox understands its devastating effects and the physical challenges it presents.
He said it was an abiding sense of optimism, a topic on which he has written two books, that allows him to carry on, even on the most difficult days. In 2009, he traveled to the Asian country Bhutan, which emphasizes happiness over productivity, and said he found his symptoms diminished there.
“People talk about me being a paragon of optimism and hope and all that stuff,” he said. ”I have a really blessed life, I have an amazing life.”
I discovered Tali Sharot at this year’s TEDx Observer event in London and was struck by the importance of her fascinating studies. I immediately purchased her book “The Optimism Bias” which I highly recommend. If you do not have time to read the whole book and would like to read an extract take a look at this article from TIME magazine. You can also watch Tali Sharot’s TED talk in this video. Enjoy!
We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We watch our backs, weigh the odds, pack an umbrella. But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision themselves achieving more than their peers; and overestimate their likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).
The belief that the future will be much better than the past and present is known as the optimism bias. It abides in every race, region and socioeconomic bracket. Schoolchildren playing when-I-grow-up are rampant optimists, but so are grownups: a 2005 study found that adults over 60 are just as likely to see the glass half full as young adults.
You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic — about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient. A survey conducted in 2007 found that while 70% thought families in general were less successful than in their parents’ day, 76% of respondents were optimistic about the future of their own family.
Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations — make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment. But the bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. Without optimism, our ancestors might never have ventured far from their tribes and we might all be cave dwellers, still huddled together and dreaming of light and heat.
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. Optimists in general work longer hours and tend to earn more. Economists at Duke University found that optimists even save more. And although they are not less likely to divorce, they are more likely to remarry — an act that is, as Samuel Johnson wrote, the triumph of hope over experience.
Even if that better future is often an illusion, optimism has clear benefits in the present. Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress and improves physical health. Researchers studying heart-disease patients found that optimists were more likely than nonoptimistic patients to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. A study of cancer patients revealed that pessimistic patients under the age of 60 were more likely to die within eight months than nonpessimistic patients of the same initial health, status and age.
In fact, a growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. The science of optimism, once scorned as an intellectually suspect province of pep rallies and smiley faces, is opening a new window on the workings of human consciousness. What it shows could fuel a revolution in psychology, as the field comes to grips with accumulating evidence that our brains aren’t just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future.
Hardwired for Hope?
I would have liked to tell you that my work on optimism grew out of a keen interest in the positive side of human nature. The reality is that I stumbled onto the brain’s innate optimism by accident. After living through Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City, I had set out to investigate people’s memories of the terrorist attacks. I was intrigued by the fact that people felt their memories were as accurate as a videotape, while often they were filled with errors. A survey conducted around the country showed that 11 months after the attacks, individuals’ recollections of their experience that day were consistent with their initial accounts (given in September 2011) only 63% of the time. They were also poor at remembering details of the event, such as the names of the airline carriers. Where did these mistakes in memory come from?
Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.
To test this, I decided to record the brain activity of volunteers while they imagined future events — not events on the scale of 9/11, but events in their everyday lives — and compare those results with the pattern I observed when the same individuals recalled past events. But something unexpected occurred. Once people started imagining the future, even the most banal life events seemed to take a dramatic turn for the better. Mundane scenes brightened with upbeat details as if polished by a Hollywood script doctor. You might think that imagining a future haircut would be pretty dull. Not at all. Here is what one of my participants pictured: “I was getting my hair cut to donate to Locks of Love [a charity that fashions wigs for young cancer patients]. It had taken me years to grow it out, and my friends were all there to help celebrate. We went to my favorite hair place in Brooklyn and then went to lunch at our favorite restaurant.”
I asked another participant to imagine a plane ride. “I imagined the takeoff — my favorite! — and then the eight-hour-long nap in between and then finally landing in Krakow and clapping for the pilot for providing the safe voyage,” she responded. No tarmac delays, no screaming babies. The world, only a year or two into the future, was a wonderful place to live in.
If all our participants insisted on thinking positively when it came to what lay in store for them personally, what does that tell us about how our brains are wired? Is the human tendency for optimism a consequence of the architecture of our brains?
The Human Time Machine
To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind. Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is in fact critical to our survival.
It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations. If we were not able to picture the world in a hundred years or more, would we be concerned with global warming? Would we attempt to live healthily? Would we have children?
While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.
The capacity to envision the future relies partly on the hippocampus, a brain structure that is crucial to memory. Patients with damage to their hippocampus are unable to recollect the past, but they are also unable to construct detailed images of future scenarios. They appear to be stuck in time. The rest of us constantly move back and forth in time; we might think of a conversation we had with our spouse yesterday and then immediately of our dinner plans for later tonight.
But the brain doesn’t travel in time in a random fashion. It tends to engage in specific types of thoughts. We consider how well our kids will do in life, how we will obtain that sought-after job, afford that house on the hill and find perfect love. We imagine our team winning the crucial game, look forward to an enjoyable night on the town or picture a winning streak at the blackjack table. We also worry about losing loved ones, failing at our job or dying in a terrible plane crash — but research shows that most of us spend less time mulling over negative outcomes than we do over positive ones. When we do contemplate defeat and heartache, we tend to focus on how these can be avoided.
Findings from a study I conducted a few years ago with prominent neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps suggest that directing our thoughts of the future toward the positive is a result of our frontal cortex’s communicating with subcortical regions deep in our brain. The frontal cortex, a large area behind the forehead, is the most recently evolved part of the brain. It is larger in humans than in other primates and is critical for many complex human functions such as language and goal setting.
Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, we recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events that I asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.
This matched the enhanced activity we observed in two critical regions of the brain: the amygdala, a small structure deep in the brain that is central to the processing of emotion, and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), an area of the frontal cortex that modulates emotion and motivation. The rACC acts like a traffic conductor, enhancing the flow of positive emotions and associations. The more optimistic a person was, the higher the activity in these regions was while imagining positive future events (relative to negative ones) and the stronger the connectivity between the two structures.
The findings were particularly fascinating because these precise regions — the amygdala and the rACC — show abnormal activity in depressed individuals. While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is. In other words, in the absence of a neural mechanism that generates unrealistic optimism, it is possible all humans would be mildly depressed.
Can Optimism Change Reality?
The problem with pessimistic expectations, such as those of the clinically depressed, is that they have the power to alter the future; negative expectations shape outcomes in a negative way. How do expectations change reality?
To answer this question, my colleague, cognitive neuroscientist Sara Bengtsson, devised an experiment in which she manipulated positive and negative expectations of students while their brains were scanned and tested their performance on cognitive tasks. To induce expectations of success, she primed college students with words such as smart, intelligent andclever just before asking them to perform a test. To induce expectations of failure, she primed them with words like stupid and ignorant. The students performed better after being primed with an affirmative message.
Examining the brain-imaging data, Bengtsson found that the students’ brains responded differently to the mistakes they made depending on whether they were primed with the word clever or the word stupid. When the mistake followed positive words, she observed enhanced activity in the anterior medial part of the prefrontal cortex (a region that is involved in self-reflection and recollection). However, when the participants were primed with the word stupid, there was no heightened activity after a wrong answer. It appears that after being primed with the word stupid, the brain expected to do poorly and did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error.
A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time. Expectations become self-fulfilling by altering our performance and actions, which ultimately affects what happens in the future. Often, however, expectations simply transform the way we perceive the world without altering reality itself. Let me give you an example. While writing these lines, my friend calls. He is at Heathrow Airport waiting to get on a plane to Austria for a skiing holiday. His plane has been delayed for three hours already, because of snowstorms at his destination. “I guess this is both a good and bad thing,” he says. Waiting at the airport is not pleasant, but he quickly concludes that snow today means better skiing conditions tomorrow. His brain works to match the unexpected misfortune of being stuck at the airport to its eager anticipation of a fun getaway.
A canceled flight is hardly tragic, but even when the incidents that befall us are the type of horrific events we never expected to encounter, we automatically seek evidence confirming that our misfortune is a blessing in disguise. No, we did not anticipate losing our job, being ill or getting a divorce, but when these incidents occur, we search for the upside. These experiences mature us, we think. They may lead to more fulfilling jobs and stable relationships in the future. Interpreting a misfortune in this way allows us to conclude that our sunny expectations were correct after all — things did work out for the best.
How do we find the silver lining in storm clouds? To answer that, my colleagues — renowned neuroscientist Ray Dolan and neurologist Tamara Shiner — and I instructed volunteers in the fMRI scanner to visualize a range of medical conditions, from broken bones to Alzheimer’s, and rate how bad they imagined these conditions to be. Then we asked them: If you had to endure one of the following, which would you rather have — a broken leg or a broken arm? Heartburn or asthma? Finally, they rated all the conditions again. Minutes after choosing one particular illness out of many, the volunteers suddenly found that the chosen illness was less intimidating. A broken leg, for example, may have been thought of as “terrible” before choosing it over some other malady. However, after choosing it, the subject would find a silver lining: “With a broken leg, I will be able to lie in bed watching TV, guilt-free.”
In our study, we also found that people perceived adverse events more positively if they had experienced them in the past. Recording brain activity while these reappraisals took place revealed that highlighting the positive within the negative involves, once again, a tête-à-tête between the frontal cortex and subcortical regions processing emotional value. While contemplating a mishap, like a broken leg, activity in the rACC modulated signals in a region called the striatum that conveyed the good and bad of the event in question — biasing activity in a positive direction.
It seems that our brain possesses the philosopher’s stone that enables us to turn lead into gold and helps us bounce back to normal levels of well-being. It is wired to place high value on the events we encounter and put faith in its own decisions. This is true not only when forced to choose between two adverse options (such as selecting between two courses of medical treatment) but also when we are selecting between desirable alternatives. Imagine you need to pick between two equally attractive job offers. Making a decision may be a tiring, difficult ordeal, but once you make up your mind, something miraculous happens. Suddenly — if you are like most people — you view the chosen offer as better than you did before and conclude that the other option was not that great after all. According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, we re-evaluate the options postchoice to reduce the tension that arises from making a difficult decision between equally desirable options.
In a brain-imaging study I conducted with Ray Dolan and Benedetto De Martino in 2009, we asked subjects to imagine going on vacation to 80 different destinations and rate how happy they thought they would be in each place. We then asked them to select one destination from two choices that they had rated exactly the same. Would you choose Paris over Brazil? Finally, we asked them to imagine and rate all the destinations again. Seconds after picking between two destinations, people rated their selected destination higher than before and rated the discarded choice lower than before.
The brain-imaging data revealed that these changes were happening in the caudate nucleus, a cluster of nerve cells that is part of the striatum. The caudate has been shown to process rewards and signal their expectation. If we believe we are about to be given a paycheck or eat a scrumptious chocolate cake, the caudate acts as an announcer broadcasting to other parts of the brain, “Be ready for something good.” After we receive the reward, the value is quickly updated. If there is a bonus in the paycheck, this higher value will be reflected in striatal activity. If the cake is disappointing, the decreased value will be tracked so that next time our expectations will be lower.
In our experiment, after a decision was made between two destinations, the caudate nucleus rapidly updated its signal. Before choosing, it might signal “thinking of something great” while imagining both Greece and Thailand. But after choosing Greece, it now broadcast “thinking of something remarkable!” for Greece and merely “thinking of something good” for Thailand.
True, sometimes we regret our decisions; our choices can turn out to be disappointing. But on balance, when you make a decision — even if it is a hypothetical choice — you will value it more and expect it to bring you pleasure.
This affirmation of our decisions helps us derive heightened pleasure from choices that might actually be neutral. Without this, our lives might well be filled with second-guessing. Have we done the right thing? Should we change our mind? We would find ourselves stuck, overcome by indecision and unable to move forward.
The Puzzle of Optimism
While the past few years have seen important advances in the neuroscience of optimism, one enduring puzzle remained. How is it that people maintain this rosy bias even when information challenging our upbeat forecasts is so readily available? Only recently have we been able to decipher this mystery, by scanning the brains of people as they process both positive and negative information about the future. The findings are striking: when people learn, their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story like Mark Zuckerberg’s, our brains take note of the possibility that we too may become immensely rich one day. But hearing that the odds of divorce are almost 1 in 2 tends not to make us think that our own marriages may be destined to fail.
Why would our brains be wired in this way? It is tempting to speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases — and emerging data that optimism is linked to specific genes — all strongly support this hypothesis. Yet optimism is also irrational and can lead to unwanted outcomes. The question then is, How can we remain hopeful — benefiting from the fruits of optimism — while at the same time guarding ourselves from its pitfalls?
I believe knowledge is key. We are not born with an innate understanding of our biases. The brain’s illusions have to be identified by careful scientific observation and controlled experiments and then communicated to the rest of us. Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions, we can act to protect ourselves. The good news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusion. The glass remains half full. It is possible, then, to strike a balance, to believe we will stay healthy, but get medical insurance anyway; to be certain the sun will shine, but grab an umbrella on our way out — just in case.
Like many people I started the year with many good intentions and quickly found that life got in the way. I wrote this article at the beginning of 2012 with the aim of featuring it in my brand new blog about positive psychology, which I had great intentions of setting up in January. We are now in May and thanks to my decision to sign up for the Thirty Day Challenge with http://www.screwworkletsplay.com/ I have finally set up my blog The Happiness Experiment. It is never too late to have a happy New Year and it is never too soon to start your own journey to happiness. This article shares some insight in to my own personal journey to happiness and future articles will share some more of the lessons I have learned along the way. I continue to experiment daily with the lessons of positive psychology and would encourage you to try some experiments too. We are all responsible for our own happiness and like me you have the ability to significantly increase your own well-being and to flourish – as Mahatma Gandhi so rightly said you can “be the change you want to see in the world.”
An experiment in happiness: “Be the change you want to see in the world”
January is traditionally the time of year when newspaper and magazine articles abound with New Year, New You features. Headlines such as “Make 2012 your best year yet”, “10 secrets to living a happier life” make us believe that this will be the year when everything will be different and circumstances will coincide to make 2012 the year when we finally attain the happiness we have been seeking.
This year I was in the fortunate position of being ahead of the curve as I had just completed Tim Le Bon’s 10 week positive psychology course at City University in December. This meant that in January I could skip the articles and forget the usual New Year resolutions we all beat ourselves up about for having abandoned in February, as I was already armed with everything I needed to carry out my own happiness experiment in 2012.
The positive psychology course could have been subtitled “10 weeks to happiness” as most of the participants had made significant improvements to their happiness levels by the end of the 10 weeks. We left armed with a range of simple tools and interventions which, if mastered and used regularly, can have a very positive impact on your life. When I began the course in October I was in a similar position to many of the other students in that I had done some reading on the subject of positive psychology but had not put a great deal of what I had read in to practice – the course proved to be the catalyst for change which we all needed.
The course was a great mixture of gaining an academic understanding of the current principles and theories of positive psychology (a relatively new branch of psychology begun in 1998 by Professor Martin Seligman) and of having the opportunity to apply these ideas in our personal and working lives. I have always been interested in the theories and benefits of optimum nutrition, popularised by Patrick Holford. This is a way of living a life of optimum physical health by taking personal responsibility for one’s own physical well-being through lifestyle and nutrition choices rather than abdicating responsibility to health practioners. Positive psychology, in my view, gives us the opportunity to achieve optimum mental health and the resilience to bounce back from life’s challenges without resorting to a medically prescribed “happy pill”. In the same way as optimum physical health is not merely absence of illness, optimum mental health is not merely the absence of negative emotions or depression. Both theories aim to help us achieve a similar outcome – a life in which we are positively flourishing and thriving and living life to the full.
We initially looked at the “happiness formula” formulated by Professor Seligman and his team which is: H = S + C + V
The level of happiness that you experience (H) is determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities (V) that you do.
It was a revelation to me to discover that 50% of our happiness is determined by genes (S), 10% by life circumstances (c) and 40% by our intentional voluntary activities. Like many of the other participants I had always assumed that our happiness levels were due to a combination of our personal circumstances and to having a naturally positive outlook on life.
I read two books related to this subject which were instrumental in changing my attitude to our ability to determine our own happiness levels. The first one “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, contains 12 practical happiness inducing activities which are simple to implement and demonstrates that having the possibility to influence our happiness levels by 40% is hugely significant. The pessimists on the course were secretly thinking that if we can only influence our happiness levels by 40% it is not worth trying!
The second book was “Positivity” by Barbara Fredrickson which illustrates that even those who are genetically pre-determined to be die-hard pessimists can improve their positivity ratio by using her broaden and build theory and by focusing on achieving the crucial tipping point of 3 to 1 positive versus negative experiences. One of the first interventions we were asked to complete on the course was to write a daily gratitude journal of three good things and how your behaviour caused the positive thing. I have realised that when you appreciate what you have, what you have appreciates in value. I now not only practice this personally every day but have introduced this positive intervention in my workplace as well.
Other topics we covered looked at 3 different routes to happiness; the pleasant life (a hedonistic approach in which temporary pleasures can elate us for a while but as we quickly habituate ourselves to them their effect diminishes), the engaged life (made up of flow experiences which use our signature strengths) and a meaningful life (in which we have a sense of purpose and connectedness and use our signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are).
I was in a similar position to many other students in that taking a hedonistic approach to life presented me with no particular problems. However I had always had a nagging doubt at the back of my mind that there had to be a scientific explanation to the fact that the first cup of coffee in the morning always made me much happier than any subsequent cups. I have always tried to live a meaningful life and giving back to communities less fortunate than ourselves (particularly the bottom billion in Africa) is hugely important to me and a great source of pleasure.
However I gained 3 important insights from this topic. The first one was that although I was familiar with the concept of “flow”, having read Mihály Csikszentmihály’s book on the subject, I did not choose to put this in to practice in my daily life and did not always live an engaged life. The second insight was the concept of signature strengths which was a completely new concept to me and which illustrates how we can become significantly happier by focusing on our strengths. Having previously always focused on my weaknesses, this was a revelation. Once you have taken the easy strengths tests which are available online, you can think of ways to use your signature strengths in different ways and situations. The third insight was the importance of making giving personal. I became a convert to the idea of acts of kindness practiced at a very personal level (another of our interventions from class) and was inspired to watch the film “Pay it forward”. I have now set up an Acts of Kindness challenge in my workplace and try to think of little things I can do on a daily basis to “Pay it forward”, such as leaving a surprise bunch of flowers for my dog walker.
We also looked at the concepts of hope, optimism and luck and at the importance of having a positive explanatory style in relation to the situations and events which life throws at us. We focused on how optimists are capable of seeing good things as permanent, pervasive and personal and bad things as temporary, specific and temporary whereas pessimists do the opposite. Optimism can be learned and your explanatory style can be worked at.
The concept of hope and the importance of perseverance and taking the long view were brought home to me by watching “Shawshank’s Redemption” a film recommended on the course recommended. I also read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and learned that if you can survive the horrors of concentration camp life and still be hopeful and optimistic about the human race, then everything is possible. This quote from the book was really enlightening: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose - one’s own way”.
The concept of luck as a route to happiness was not something I had previously considered, but reading Richard Wiseman’s “The Luck Factor” which demonstrates that there are 12 key principles which affect our luck and that we are all in control of these 12 principles. I recently started putting one of the first principles in to practice, “lucky people build and maintain a strong network of luck”. This basically means that the bigger your network, the more opportunities come your way, so it is a great idea to constantly think of new ways to meet people. It is not about having hundreds of “friends” on Face book but having a network of friends and contacts with whom you are on first name terms. As a practical example I recently moved house and decided to invite all my new neighbours to a “Pot Luck” party as a way of getting to know people quickly rather than spending years not knowing who lives in the same street. I am applying one principle of this book each month both in my personal life and at work. The principles can also be found on this website: http://www.theluckfactor.com/
Other aspects of the course which I will be focusing on in 2012 are lessons about savouring, mindfulness and meditation which we practised briefly in class. This made me aware how little we live in the present and how important it is to master this skill if we want to be happy. I will be signing up for a course on Mindfulness in the near future and intend putting this in to practice in my daily life. We also learned about the significant role which positive relationships play in our happiness and of the importance of emotional intelligence in our overall well-being. These are concepts which I will be studying further now that the course is over.
10 weeks is, of course, only a short period of study and I would not claim to have mastered all the concepts we were taught or indeed to have put everything in to practice yet. It is now a month since the course finished and I still feel that I derived so much personal benefit from the course that I want to both continue studying this subject and to pass my knowledge (limited though it is at this stage) on to others. I am implementing the teaching in my personal and work life and am already reaping the benefits.
I have never previously struggled with being hopeful about the future, but I have at times struggled with being optimistic about today. Above all this is what Tim le Bon’s 10 week positive psychology course has taught me; that if we want to change our happiness levels we have to make that change happen. To quote Mahatma Gandhi “Be the change you want to see in the world”. If you would like to learn more, I would recommend you look at the course reading list as a starting point, sign up for the next 10 week course and start to take massive action. Try out your own happiness experiment and this time next year you could be ahead of the curve too.
My personal top 10 lessons from the course
1. Be grateful and keep a positive attitude
2. Take the long view – post-traumatic growth is possible
3. Be kind and make generosity personal
4. Always stay inspired
5. Focus on strengths and use them creatively
6. Share knowledge about positive psychology
7. Never stop learning but take MASSIVE action
8. Be hopeful about the future and optimistic about today
9. Meet new people, try new experiences, learn new skills and get involved
10. Make a difference and be the change you want to see in the world.
Article written by Shona Lockhart, 25th January 2012