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.
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Don’t you hate it when people judge you? And don’t you hate it when people assume they know all about you because they’ve stuck you in some pigeon hole? You know the kind of thing. I mentioned in another post sitting on the train recently next to two men who spent the whole journey dismissing huge swathes of humanity – doctors they said were only interested in one thing – money; Iraq was always a hell-hole, now it was just a hell-hole with less buildings; everyone who lives below the Mason-Dixon line is an in-breeder……and on and on and on. These are not uncommon conversations.
One way we function as human beings is to focus on part of reality, classify it and judge it. We do that to try and get a sense that we understand the world and we also do it to try and control our experience of reality. The thing is this strategy brings loads of bad side-effects. For a start, generalised judgement stops thought. Once you judge a whole class of something, you stop thinking about it. By that I mean you stop seeing, stop hearing, stop experiencing the context-sensitive reality of the individual member of that “class”.
I find this way of thinking very, very disturbing. I understand why it’s there, and I know that human beings are incapable of experiencing the totality of experience as it is. We can only perceive and experience aspects of reality at any given moment. But when we are not aware of the enormous down-side of this human function then we are no longer living in the real world. Instead we limit our experience of reality to our pigeon-hole set. We see everything through the thick discoloured lenses we’ve made for ourselves.
This happens in all areas of life. In Medicine, it happens with diagnoses. How sad it is to see people classified as a “case of X” and how much more sad it is to meet a person who can only see themselves as a “case of X”. When we squeeze every patient into a tightly defined diagnostic box we stop seeing them as who they are. People with mental illnesses experiences this a lot. Once they’ve been given a “diagnosis” they often find that all of their experience is interpreted by the doctors as part of that diagnosis. This is what leads to bad and dangerous prescribing. I recently saw a patient who had suffered from a variety of symptoms for the last couple of years. He was investigated at the outset of the illness and given a particular diagnosis. The diagnosis was wrong. But despite the fact that every time he saw his doctors he told them that certain treatments weren’t working they wouldn’t listen. The doctors said they were prescribing the right medicine for his problem. But they weren’t! Luckily, he got sicker and ended up with other doctors and a different investigation which revealed the true diagnosis. Since getting the appropriate treatment for that condition he’s not in a wheelchair any more.
We also stop experiencing the reality of the rich uniqueness of every human being when we classify them according to race, religion, accent, or life-style. It’s sad and it’s such a stupid way to live. Next time you catch yourself, or somebody else, saying that “all X are Y”, challenge them. All X are never all Y! And if you think they are, you’ve lost touch with reality.
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One of the great and surprising joys of blogging is the making of connections with people who you’d probably never ever have met in any other way. It’s one of the best reasons to blog in my opinion. I’ve made a good new friend with a fellow blogger who goes by the name of sugarmouseintherain. We’ve been having email discussions as well as sharing things on our respective blogs and one of his ideas was to have a conversation on the net. (the newer Web 2.0 technologies really make this possible – we used google documents – if you don’t know this tool, google it and explore it!)
Sugarmouse has posted our first conversation about health and healing on his blog today. Please follow this link to go to his blog and read it. We’d both be really keen to have your feedback which you can do by either commenting on the post on his site or by emailing us.
And why is he called sugarmouseintherain? You can find that out on his blog too!
Thankyou for taking the lead on this sugarmouse. It’s really great to make new friends this way.
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