There’s an enormous literature these days on happiness, and pretty much all of it pushes some variety of positive thinking. The Happiness Hypothesis is one of the most thoughtful of these books, and Stumbling on Happiness is a fairly good read too, and Professor Layard’s Happiness is worth reading if you want to understand why the English NHS is about to spend millions on CBT.
But I’ve never been a fan of either bandwagons or one-size-fits-all treatments so I read this study about optimism with interest. Two professors at Duke University’s Business School have come up with an interesting way of measuring optimism – they asked people how long they expected to live and then compared these estimates with actuarial tables of life expectancy. Optimists were classed as those whose self assessment of longevity was beyond that of the statistical predictions and 5% of them were classed as super-optimists – people who reckoned they’d live a good 20 years longer than the statistics would predict! Interesting method, huh?
What they then did was interview people about their behaviours (being a business school they were most interested in financial behaviours). They found the following -
Puri and Robinson find that optimists:
- Work longer hours;
- Invest in individual stocks;
- Save more money;
- Are more likely to pay their credit card balances on time;
- Believe their income will grow over the next five years;
- Plan to retire later (or not at all);
- Are more likely to remarry (if divorced).
In comparison, extreme optimists:
- Work significantly fewer hours;
- Hold a higher proportion of individual stocks in their portfolios, and are more likely to be day traders;
- Save less money;
- Are less likely to pay off their credit card balances on a regular basis;
- Are more likely to smoke.
In other words, while a dose of optimism might be good for you, too much optimism was associated with riskier and less healthy behaviours. I guess it’s this kind of thing that makes it very difficult to do health education with teenagers – trying to tell them smoking will shorten their lives means nothing to most of them – they think those problems are highly unlikely to happen to them.
I think that all coping strategies in life are good if they work for you, but that any coping strategy which is pushed to an extreme will start to harm you. So a little optimism is no doubt a good thing but optimism which is way beyond the probable can disengage a person from reality.