Is Optimism a Luxury Good?


Angela. I'd like to ask you a question today. Sent in by listener named ben all right and this is about something that i feel. We've discussed on the show at least once or twice which is the power of optimism. I think it's safe to say that. You and i are both all things considered optimistic people. Yes so in a way benz question is a challenge to that which i like he writes. How do you square the benefits of with the harsh realities. That might make any reasonable person. A pessimist so look. I think this is a great question. A couple of levels. I think we should appeal it by first asking about the supposed benefits of optimism as ben puts it. Wasn't you first house. What litter tries to say about that. So optimism can be defined in different ways but the way that is often defined is the tendency to look for in a way biased by information. That things are going to get better and that you can make them better and the benefits are enormous. And i wanna say ubiquitous just in the sense that when you think about all the possible life outcomes like doing well at work making more money living longer having more friends being happier. These are all koretz of optimism. So first of all. I have to say your claim about. The benefits of optimism sounds really enthusiastic. Like optimistically enthusiastic. Tuesday sounds like you say. They are enormous and ubiquitous. But when i look into the literature which you know much better than i. Here's one paper. I see optimism is associated with exceptional longevity in two epidemiologic cohorts of men and women. So that sounds good. But then i read a little bit of it. It makes the claim that optimistic people have reduced risk for cardiovascular disease mortality compared with their less optimistic peers but to me this sounds like potentially classic example of correlation without causality. It could be that the same behaviors that result in or drive optimism. Also result in dr healthy behaviors. It could be that healthier. People have more reason to be optimistic. Because they're healthy. Yeah the causal arrow could go the other way like. Wow your life is great. No wonder you're an optimist so persuade me some of those correlates for some of the outcomes of optimism. Get into the causal. Okay and let me also say even that when i say enormous i mean you can't take back enormous. You said it. I might need to take back. Are you gonna take back ubiquitous to now. I'm going to go with ubiquitous. Let's leave that one but you know. Listeners should know that nothing predicts anything with truly norm or enormous food. Life is complicated right so relatively speaking these effects are really impressive. But i don't want to exaggerate too much there. Okay so first. Let me just say you're right. Correlation is not causation. Can you say that again. Look you have a point. I'm going to back down from that too. It's quite obvious that the causal aero could go the opposite way. You're having a great life therefore you're optimistic. It's also possible that some third variable like being rich or something drives it. But here's some evidence to suggest that the causal arrow is also from optimism to outcomes one example. Is that when you look at the relationship to an optimism and health outcomes one reason that we think that this is really optimists doing something differently. Is that when you actually measure. How physically active. They use to be what they eat whether they smoke. It turns out that optimist tend to engage in healthy behaviors. So optimism can drive behaviors that have better health outcomes. That's still correlation evidence by the way it's just that it's a little more of a satisfying story. It is satisfying and one can imagine the mechanism by which that's true. One can say. If i feel like the activity that i do is going to have a real result like feel optimistic about my leverage their then i'm probably more likely to do as opposed to. I can do this all day long. It's not gonna help. Yeah like my life is terrible and it's not gonna change. I'll stay in bed and smoke the cigarette. Let's flip it for a second and talk about what the listener ben wrote in about the harsh realities of life. That would make any reasonable person a pessimist. This calls to mind a famous. Ish story called the stockdale paradox. You familiar with this. Just vaguely admiral. James stockdale when he was in captivity in vietnam. I think in the famous hanoi hilton which was not a hotel by the way it was prison. That the american prisoners called the hanoi hilton. He was years later. Asked what he had learned from that experience about dealing with helplessness and torture and imprisonment. He said i can tell you who didn't survive. It was the optimists and his argument. Was that the optimist. Felt like oh. We're going to be out by christmas. And then chris would come and go and you were now and as he put it they died of a broken heart which i think is probably not exactly what happened. False hope right. And that's where. i think. This question is really interesting for all of us. Because i think these are natural tendency to reach for optimism but there should be a natural cautionary vibe against letting your optimism become delusion. I don't know the story very well. And certainly never interviewed stockdale. But i don't know that optimism. Like i know by christmas. Everyone's going to be vaccinated kind of optimism. I don't know that that's truly at the core of these findings. I think the best kind of optimism. Is you know what. There's gotta be something that i can do here. It's just that of all the things you could pay attention to. Should you pay attention to the things you can't control or should he try to pay attention to things that you can. So couple your optimism with agency. You're saying yeah in fact if you want to say that. Optimism of the a gigantic flavor is the optimism that angela duckworth really likes. That's the phrase was reaching for optimism of the genetic flavor. Yes i thought so.

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