I have been reading and thinking a lot about our emotional balance: happiness, hopefulness, satisfaction, anger, apathy, and depression. Why is it that we are more optimistic at times and why is it that some people are just always more optimistic? There has been quite a bit written about the topic of optimism, the optimism bias and how we, as human beings, are wired for optimism to keep our species going. How this plays out is that we often remember past events as being more positive than they were. We think more highly of ourselves and our situations than reality might bear out, and we are hopeful that our personal futures are going to be even better. Our imaginations play an important role here, even creatively reconstructing past memories to better fit our rosy views.
In order to be able to picture a future for our progeny, make plans, or be inclined to save resources for leaner times or future generations, we have an ability to travel through space and time mentally, with the imaginative powers to see ourselves in the past or the future. The Iroquois understood that capacity and comprehended that our actions today will have far-reaching effects. They believed that we should make decisions based on maintaining a sustainable world seven generations in the future.
In 2008, a wave of optimism swept our country with 80 percent of Americans feeling optimistic about the next four years, according to Tali Sharot in her book, The Optimism Bias; A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. Not only that, but that wave of optimism was felt around the world. Was this due to booming economies, extraordinary scientific discoveries promising relief from chronic diseases, or a breakout of peace? Quite the opposite. We were in a deep global recession with the U.S. facing one of the worst periods in its economic history, second only to the Great Depression of the early 1930s. The war on terror was in high gear and the war in Iraq in its fifth year. Sharot contends that during hard times people rely on optimism the most. It was the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States and his promise of change that triggered hopefulness. In his inauguration address he acknowledged the challenges but added: “I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that…America can change. What we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.” Listeners felt inspired and hopeful, a reaction called “elevation.” Psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia, suggests that such events stimulate the vagus nerve, which triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin, causing a sense of elevation, erasing cynicism and generating hope. AKA “the love molecule,” oxytocin can reduce uncertainty and cynicism while increasing trust.
What was unusual after Obama’s election was the sense of optimism about the world in general. Typically, people will feel more optimistic their own futures (private optimism) while holding negative expectations about the future of their country (public despair). But in 2008, 71 percent of people polled believe the economy would get better in the coming year and 75 percent forecast positive changes in international relations, a level of optimism rarely observed even in stable times.
We tend to feel more optimistic about things we feel we can control, even if that feeling is an illusion. For example, even is we live in a high crime area, we believe we will have less risk than others because we’ll be more careful. We don’t carry the same illusion about having any control over other people’s behavior.
Sharot says our feelings of satisfaction often depend on the power of relativity: how are we doing relative to others? When we believe we are doing better than people we know or the general population, we can perceive ourselves as fortunate or even privileged and therefore hold an optimistic bias about our personal futures and a pessimistic bias about everyone else’s. A friend of mine once said that she could be happy as long as she knew that there was someone else that was more miserable. So people bemoan the health care system in their country but think their local providers are great. They disparage the condition of education nationally but consider their local schools excellent. When surveyed about what they thought would make them happy, people most frequently named the following five factors, listed in order of importance:
1. More time with family
2. Earning double what I do now
3. Better health
4. More time with friends
5. More traveling
Answers varied depending on age and other differences, but surprisingly, some key conditions are not on that list. Sharot reports that according to “The World in 2005: The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Quality-of-Life Index,” political stability is one of the nine strongest indicators of a nation’s well-being, along with material well-being, health, family life, community life, climate and geography, job security, political freedom (civil liberties) and gender equality.
The respondents were asked about life satisfaction rather than about happiness.
I wouldn’t have thought most Americans would consider issues of political stability and freedom as key to their personal happiness, but apparently the current state of affairs in our country is having a deleterious effect on many. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that there were more deaths in 2017 than in any of the last 100 years with a resulting decline in U.S. life expectancy, particularly because of the number of deaths of younger people. The suicide rate, with 47,000 deaths, is the highest in 50 years, and over 70,000 people died of a drug overdose. Dr. William Dietz, a disease prevention expert at George Washington University, sees a sense of hopelessness as an underlying issue. “Financial struggles, a widening income gap, and divisive politics are all casting a pall over many Americans. I really do believe that people are increasingly hopeless, and that leads to drug use and potentially to suicide.”
Perhaps this casts a different light on the importance of taking political action and reaching out to others. If the state of the nation angers or saddens you, taking some action might lift you up with a sense of purpose and a dose of hopefulness. Your actions might help your own frame of mind as well as others.
If oxytocin motivates us to care about others and work together for a common purpose, are there ways we can increase our levels of oxytocin, this hormone of well-being? Paul Zak, Claremont Graduate University professor, answers “yes,” that oxytocin can be stimulated by doing such things as “listening intently with your eyes, giving a gift, sharing a meal, and meditating while focusing on others.” So go meditate or spread the word about a political candidate stumping for change. You just might help make America hopeful again.