Most people's brains are hard-wired to generate an optimistic outlook on life. Evolution, it seems, has favored an ability to look into the future and see good things happening.
Such is the message of TIME magazine's cover story this week, "The Optimism Bias." It's a highly interesting article.
Tali Sharot, the author, says that "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."
This ability was naturally selected for in the course of Homo sapiens' evolution because it had so many survival advantages, such as planning ahead for a future reward. However, mental time travel comes with a big downside.
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.
For atheists and agnostics, their focus is on a bright future in this life. But religious believers use their mental time traveling ability to envision a wonderfully pleasant life after death, otherwise known as heaven, paradise, god-realization, and such.
Optimism is great. Feeling that the future is beckoning us to good times fuels us with energy, enthusiasm, and the courage to overcome bumps along the Happiness Road.
We should understand, though, that our brains are doing what evolution has wrought when a sunny happy face beams down upon us as we contemplate the next unseen bends on our life's course. Optimism can blind our ability to discern reality as it is, rather than how we'd like it to be.
Most people believe in life after death. Religiosity is the default for humans, since it fosters an optimism that can mentally time travel on into eternity. "God is guiding my life here on Earth, and after I die He'll usher me into everlasting heavenly bliss!"
Well, almost certainly not. It can feel good to think that way, and there's nothng wrong with feeling good. We just should know what's going on in our brains when realism takes a back seat to optimism.
The TIME article ends with:
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.