About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Optimism Delusion


Yesterday, I was reading an excellent article by Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist who is researching the mental constructs of optimism.  She discovered through her research that about 80% of her subjects, when asked about their personal future, expected their lives to be happy and turn out exactly how they wanted them.  They imagined professional success, good marriages, high achieving children, and many other standard definitions of happiness.  They did not picture unemployment, divorce, foreclosure, health problems or any of the other realities that are likely to plague them.  In short, when asked about their vision of their future, they were unwaveringly optimistic.

Her research also exposed an interesting paradox, while people view their own future very optimistically, they view the general future very pessimistically.  They think our country is on the wrong course, that we will see doomsday in our lives, that things will continue to get worse, all the while believing that they had a bright future in store for them personally.

I suspect this is the motivation behind bomb shelters and plans for the zombie apocalypse; we think the world will go to hell, but each of us thinks we will survive it.  It is probably also the reasoning behind things like the Rapture.  "Sure the Anti-Christ will destroy the world, but hey, I'll be sucked up into Heaven by God's personal Hoover, so I can have a front row seat for the end of the world, without having to actually experience it."  We have turned Armageddon into a spectator sport.

But to return to my point, humans in general, regardless of how unrealistic it is, have an optimistic outlook on their own personal future, no matter how bleak they see everything else.

I will call this the Optimism Delusion, and I think it is what might be behind the "better dead than sad' ideology that pervades America.

Sharot points out how the Optimism Delusion can be actually dangerous, both individually and to society.  On an individual level, it leads to denialism and risky behavior.  It is the thing that makes a woman devoutly believe that her boyfriend will stop hitting her once they get married; "all he needs is to feel secure that I'll never leave him and marrying him will prove that to him."  It is also what makes people keep smoking even though they know the risks, "my grandfather smoked until the day he died, at 98 years old."  It's what makes us take on a risky mortgage, "Yeah, it's a struggle now, but in five years, when I make branch manager, I'll be able to afford two houses like this."

The Optimism delusion blinds us to dangers across the entire spectrum.  We don't think we will ever divorce, be homeless, get cancer, or even have less than gifted children.  No matter what, we believe that bad things only happen to other people, at least we do until they happen to us.

However, Sharot still thinks that optimism is a good thing on the whole; she states that we need to expect to succeed in order to actually be willing to strive.  Optimism, in her view is a motivating factor, and necessary for enhancing our mental health.

Sure it is, right up until reality kicks us in the ass and the optimistic future shatters like a crystal goblet.  Then, it turns out, optimism wasn't that great for us after all.

Let me explain.  If we think everything in our lives will be great and wonderful, and then suddenly we find out it's not, we are not going to react well.  When a spouse invites you out to a nice restaurant for Valentine's Dan and proceeds to tell you over the salad course that they are in love with someone else, it is a recipe for weeks of hysterical sobbing, violent outbursts of anger, or even worse.  Getting fired can become a reason to race home tearfully, leap into bed, assume the prenatal position and turn the electric blanket up to nine.  Being foreclosed on becomes the gateway to not only the freedom of homelessness, but to the multitude of chemical substances that enhance life on the street.  All of this because our lives did not turn out the way we wanted them to.

Because we do not expect bad things in our lives, we are utterly unprepared for them when they happen to us.  People who have stockpiles of food and survivalist kits to survive nuclear war often can't handle the normal bumps in the road of life.  Armageddon yes, divorce no.  And this is all the result of misplaced optimism and the failure to accept the realities of life.

I want to be clear here, I am not advocating pessimism here.  I am not saying that we should all take Eyore's view of the world, and live under a permanent rain cloud.  What I am saying is that we need to adopt a realistic view of the world.  I will call it "Irish Optimism."

I was raised with a traditional Irish worldview, "hope for the best, but expect the worst."  In essence, I plan for the worst case scenario in every situation.  By doing that, I am typically happy with how things turn out because I know that no matter what happens, it is better than it could have been.  And in those rare cases where the worst happens, essentially going over the cliff strapped to the bomb, well, at least I have a plan for how to deal with it.

I get a lot of criticism from other people for my worst case scenarios, but it means that I am rarely incapacitated by the bad things that happen in life.  I may get angry or upset about them, I may even scream and yell, but then I get down to it and start trying to fix it.  I always have strategies for every situation, good or bad, and can quickly implement those solutions.

And as a result, I am generally a fairly satisfied person.  I don't want to use the term happy, because that term has been so devalued by modern society; satisfied and content are far more accurate terms.

If you had asked me when I was twenty where I would be when I was forty, I would have said I'd be a world famous architect.  If you had asked the same question when I was thirty, I would have been certain that I would be a tenured professor, and I'd be married with the obligatory 2.3 children.

None of this has happened, but I am still satisfied with where I am in life.  I am not homeless, divorced and paying child support for a kid I never see.  I don't have a severe or terminal illness.  I am not friendless and alone.  None of the worst case scenarios of life have happened to me.

I own a nice house that I love.  I just got my architect's license.  I have a great roommate who pays his rent on time and is good for talking about the implications of quantum physics.  I have a number of close friends who are like family.  I have some regrets, but I know how to learn from them and use them to my advantage.  Even though my life did not turn out in the way that society tells me it should have, and it is not anything that I would have come up with in an optimistic vision, I still find a great deal of satisfaction in it.

And this is the root of the matter, by accepting how life turns out, and not holding it to an optimistic ideal, I have shed expectations and can be pleased with how it has turned out.  This is not to say that I don't strive to make my life better, nor have I given up on goals and high achievements, I just accept that the good things in my life are the direct result of my actions and that I always need a plan to try to mitigate the inevitable bad things.

And in the end, I think the Optimism Delusion feeds the massive depression epidemic in this country.  People have unrealistic expectations, and if those don't come true, they fall into a funk.  Then, rather than try to change the situation, they dwell on how things didn't turn out the way they expected.  Ultimately, since they have no coping mechanism to deal with the failed expectations, they turn to the chemical mask of anti-depressants.

In the end, unbridled optimism has a high potential to make us depressed, and realism will ultimately make us happier.  It seems counter-intuitive, that being less optimistic will make us enjoy our lives more, but it removes unrealistic ideals, and allows us to focus on actual self improvement.  We make our own destiny, and by being realistic about the bad things that will happen to us, we can plan for them, and get through them with grace.

And in the end, that is how we can make our lives fulfilling.

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