How often do you think about what you think about?
In your internal monologue, are you mostly positive or mostly negative?
Humans have always tended to have a negative bias. To anticipate threats was an evolutionary advantage.
Rather than believing the idea that we are the way we are, we can decide to change the way we are. Those who notice and try to alter their presence have been found, unsurprisingly, to be the ones who are most likely to change for the better (Berios et al., 2015).
“The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist sees the hole.” - Unknown
Not only that, the evidence that suggests your life will be both healthier and more successful if you lean into optimism, rather than pessimism, is startling.
An eight-year study, sampling 70,000 women every two years, found that the most optimistic women (top quartile) had remarkably better outcomes in terms of health than the least optimistic women (lowest quartile):
- 16% lower risk of death from cancer;
- 38% lower risk of dying from heart disease;
- 39% lower risk of dying from stroke;
- 38% lower risk of dying from respiratory disease;
- and 52% lower risk of dying from infection.
In terms of success, another study of 13,000 students tracked cheerfulness. They found that participants with greater cheerfulness in their first year of university earned more money than those who were least cheerful.
The difference in earnings, 16 years later, amounted to the tune of around $25,000 per year. This connection between disposition and earnings persisted even after accounting for the earnings of the respondent’s parents.
A similar outcome was found, albeit with a smaller sample size of 272, where those with greater positive affect (read: more positive than negative) received greater pay increases than their pessimistic counterparts (Staw et al., 1994).
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” - Albert Camus
We can hear some retort already, “the world is a mean place,” or “I’m this way because I’ve been let down.” No doubt.
However, one study by Robert Leahy, the Clinical Professor of Psychology at Cornell, found that our expectations of things going badly tend to rarely turn out quite as we expect. 85% of expected ‘bad’ outcomes turned out to be either neutral or positive.
Of the remaining 15% of negative possibilities, 79% of them were less bad than the participants anticipated. Essentially, using this study, only 3% of the individuals’ worries turned out as bad as they feared.
In 2023, the inclination that expecting the worst serves us on some kind of evolutionary level appears to do quite the opposite.
“There are no facts, only interpretations.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
What we’re suggesting here is that a predisposition towards the negative, towards the pessimistic, is limiting you in terms of your health and potential success. The rationale for expecting the worst can be explained through many different lenses, perhaps best by Kahneman & Tversky’s 2002 Nobel Prize-winning Prospect Theory.
They pose that, faced with potential gain, we’re risk-averse. But when there’s a potential loss in front of us, we’re inclined to become risk-seeking. It also states that our fear of loss is greater than our joy of gains.
So, the pessimistic inclination may be explained both by our evolutionary drive and our psychology. But it’s no longer serving us in the same way it once did.
Changing the way we view the glass requires effort. However, the rewards that arise from doing so are ultimately investments in your health, bank balance and (in our opinion) your likeability.
You always have the capacity to change.
The faux protection that stems from constant doubt summons more damage than delight.
If your inner voice is more moan than marvel, there’s work to be done.
Do you see the doughnut, or the hole?