To narrate a story requires us to re-call "facts" and shape them in ways that form a plot line, with this line moving in a direction that seems to generate its own momentum. We can re-collect "facts" in myriad ways, and we may do this through two distinctly different filters - one that tilts the story-teller towards the glass-is-half-empty view and the other that sees the glass as half-full. The former gazes outward and sees a sky that's partly cloudy and the other...well, you get it. Yet, each is "seeing" the same thing. Or are they?
You've, no doubt, endured the oppressively gloom-and-doom, woe-is-me type during intermittent moments of your own story, and perhaps this is the character you choose for yourself to play. You've most certainly met members of the "glee club" as well, that irrepressibly cheerful group that - let's be honest - sometimes really piss us off. I mean, come on - if you're thinking what I'm thinking - how can they always be this upbeat? It's just not realistic. And, actually, you know what? In many ways, there may be lots of truth to this.
In a book written by Tali Sharot titled The Science of Optimism, she offers a persuasive, research-based premise contending that the human race is hard-wired for an optimistic tale of life. After all, if we weren't, we wouldn't have come this far. Think about it - if every problem our ancestors faced was met with an oh-damn-we're-screwed-now-because-we-have-no-way-of-figuring-this-out-and-what's-the-point-because we're-eventually-gonna-die-anyway attitude, well, we wouldn't be here. It was precisely this group of hearty souls that believed it was possible...whatever possible was at the time...that allows us to be here now. It's really no different with problems we face today.
We think of our memories as factually-based stor(i)ed experiences that we file away and retrieve when we wish - in fact, intact. Research, however, tells us it just ain't so. Rather, our stored memories are "experiences" we've "doctored" to match our preconceived notions. We really don't see things as they are and then bank them. We actually see them as we are...and still bank them. When we withdraw these memories weeks or months or years later, they resemble fiction more than fact. But, what do we know? We think they're accurate. Furthermore, researchers at Harvard University have recently suggested that our memory vaults aren't constructed to store our experiences as much as they are to help imagine what's in store for our future. It's why our memories aren't all that accurate all the time. We remember what we want to remember in the way we want to remember things. So, do you think the glee club is recalling events in the same way the glum club is? Do you think it matters?
Here's the rub, though. In this scientific study of optimism, the pessimists are actually more accurate in forecasting the future than are the optimists. Many of us believe that the future will be better than the past and many of us tend to overestimate our chances on a whole host of probable outcomes. For instance, divorce rates exceed 40% in the Western world, yet pop this on newly weds and they'll tell you they have a 0% chance of joining the ranks of failed marriages. And why shouldn't they? But, if you're in the church pew at a friend's wedding ceremony amidst the airy feeling of marital bliss and thinking there's a two-in-five chance this may not turn out the way it's supposed to, what's that make you? A drippy, sour puss...pessimist realist - based upon the facts. The consummate killjoy...pessimist realist.
What matters more here is how one responds to "reality" in this sense - reality being nothing more than simply our perception of events. It's our response-ability (our ability to respond) that determines what will be told in our stories. And our perceptions of reality often tend to direct the course of experiences that follow. It's the optimism bias in many that sparks hope in all of us. Whatever the odds, hope translates into belief that we can beat them.
OK. So pessimists are more accurate in their predictions. Yet the research clearly indicates that those who believe in at least a half-filled glass of possibilities tend to shape their future in positive ways. While some among us subscribe to a low-expectation mindset with the attendant premise that anything better is the secret to success and that we'll otherwise never be disappointed if we expect so little in the first place, those of us who think this way are actually dead wrong. The research, instead, reveals that those of us with high expectations tend to feel more upbeat, regardless of the outcomes attached to these expectations. Furthermore, when members of the glee club succeed, they are inclined to invoke yet another bias, this one being the attributional bias. They're convinced they succeed because of their efforts - they own their success. And those who expect to succeed more often do than those who expect the worst. Moreover, they recover more quickly from setbacks while learning from them. And, as you might expect by now, the pessimists more often get what they expect as well while getting stuck in the mud of defeatism. So, the optimism bias added to the attributional bias makes for sum-thing special. All this being said, one's view on all of this often foreshadows the ensuing plot line. The chapters follow accordingly.
It's important to take note, however, that neither Sharot nor the research she reveals suggests that one be blindly optimistic in the face of what life presents. Although we're not all that innately adept at identifying our biases, we can learn to recognize them and strike a yin-yang balance. And that's also true of those of us with a naturally occurring pessimistic set point (Martin Seligman wrote about this several years ago called Learned Optimism). We can believe we'll never get sick, but we still should purchase medical insurance. We can believe the sun will always shine but still keep an umbrella in the trunk - just in case. And if we do find this balance, it won't bring in dark clouds to our otherwise partly sunny skies.
Most of the time, all we need is a sense of possibility. When we sense this, hope springs eternal. Carlos Castenada, a popular writer back in the turbulent sixties and seventies, once wrote, "The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same."
So, we as continue to write our stories, the amount of work is the same. We can choose the course of our plot. We can make the main characters in our stories as we see it. As we recall it. And as we envision it. Which tale will you spin on your life?