Optimism. It Works. Usually.

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The optimist sees the glass as half full. The pessimist sees the glass as half empty. While they argue, the realist walks over, declares that they are both idiots, and drinks the glass because he is thirsty. Unfortunately for the average person, life is slightly more complex than a glass of water, and brings in a horde of problems that just keep piling up. Yet somehow, we manage to survive and keep on living life, waiting for more problems to deal with, dealing with them, and then repeating the process.

How does this work?

Quite simply put, humans are irrationally optimistic. This irrational optimism motivates us throughout our lives, but can also cause catastrophes. According to studies published in TIME Magazine, the human mind is biologically hardwired for excessive optimism. This makes sense, because our world is filled with natural disasters, disease, drugs, war, and economic hardship to name a few. These studies go on to explain how optimism co-evolved as a coping mechanism for our greater awareness of the unpleasant aspects of the world. For example, as organisms began to understand the concept of death, they needed to be able to move on with their lives, and irrational optimism helps with that. If this optimism didn’t exist, then instead of being motivated to overcome various challenges, as a species, we would simply fall into an inescapable emotional depression.

The immediate benefit of such irrational optimism is the desire to strive for goals in tough odds. For example, AP exams: by definition, it is rather hard to receive a five, or even a four, and yet, most of us set such scores as their goal. Here the optimism pays off, because by setting such a goal, and believing in the possibility of attaining it, we will exert more effort to attain that goal, and as a direct result, the likelihood that we will attain that goal also increases. It is necessary for us to set such a goal in order to do the work to get there. If our optimism doesn’t kick in, and we simply sulk about how difficult the test is, then we will never even try to achieve their ideal score, and never will.

Moving beyond the painful realm of testing and into the real world, optimism is not only useful in setting specific goals. Optimism is necessary to maintain long-term motivation while accomplishing a task, and various occupations require a certain level of irrational optimism to accomplish their jobs successfully. Case in point: paramedics. All too often, emergency victims do not survive, and yet, paramedics do all that they can to save each victims life. It would seem that after witnessing multiple people die, even after giving their all to help them survive would effectively demotivate paramedics from trying to help others in similar circumstances, because they have effectively failed in the past. And yet, there are many stories of crash victims whose hearts have stopped multiple times en route to the hospital, but have survived due to the relentless work of paramedics. Once again, if paramedics’ would not have that irrational optimism that their patient may survive, then they would lose their motivation to do all that they could to save the patient’s life, and many more patients would die.

However, optimism has a dark side. And yes, the previous statement should raise an eyebrow or two. Both the greatest benefit and the greatest problem with optimism is its irrationality. The irrationality can be useful, when motivating us to perform better against tough odds. Unfortunately, it can be too effective. A notable example of this dates back to Paris in 1912. A tailor by the name of Franz Reichelt decided to make his name in history by building a combination of a parachute and an overcoat. He felt that he needed make a well-publicized test from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and he did. Unfortunately, at this point, his optimism got in the way, to the point where he felt like he didn’t need to test the device with something not living. The irrationality of his optimism caused him to strap himself in for the first ever test of his device, and casually jump to his death before a crowd of hundreds of spectators. Oops. Halfway through the free fall, his optimism quickly wore out, and according to a memorial plaque, he died of a heart attack seconds before impact. His optimism was irrational to the point where it caused him to do something inherently stupid. And die.

The irrationality of optimism allows us to set goals, and motivates us to accomplish them. Unfortunately, it also can cause us to leap off of the tallest building in sight. This is the difficult part with optimism. Finding it shouldn’t be too bad, because it is hard-wired in the brain to begin with. However, understanding when it is beneficial, when it is about to kill you, and everything in between, is the key for making successful use of one of the most irrational parts of the mind.





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