Pursuing happiness: You’re doing it wrong

Martin Seligman - FlourishIn Flourish, Martin Seligman announced the big goal of positive psychology, the science of happiness: to have 51% of people “flourishing” by 2051.

But what does it mean to flourish?

In the book, Seligman explains just that – and debunks the be-all-end-all concept of happiness that he and so many of us have been subscribing to. Happiness is not the goal we’re all seeking.

How come people have children, even though studies show that having children doesn’t bring more happiness? How come we love the feeling of flow, even though we lose track of time and don’t feel much of anything? Are all introverts less happy because our moods are generally lower? Why do so many people achieve great success and find they aren’t happy?

Seligman’s framework explains these and many other questions. Instead of pursuing the single goal of happiness, he says, we pursue these five things:

  • Positive emotion: Momentary feelings of pleasure, glee, satisfaction, etc.
  • Engagement: Flow, or being fully immersed in what we’re doing.
  • Accomplishment: Mastery and success.
  • Relationships
  • Meaning: Belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.

He selected these five criteria because we choose them for their own sake, and they all contribute to well-being. In this new framework, our 24 character strengths can play a role in all these areas.

Seligman explains that this list isn’t meant to be a guide for achieving happiness; it’s simply an observation of the goals people do pursue. But I can’t help but see it that way.

If you had to rank these five areas of your life in order of satisfaction, what order would you put them in? Mine would be achievement, relationships, engagement, positive emotion, and meaning. What areas are you neglecting or putting off?

Some people say that trying to be happy is making us miserable. If that’s true, maybe it’s because “happy” is too generic. It’s hard to wake up and say, “I’m going to be happier today,” but it’s easier to wake up and say, “I’m going to have more positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, or accomplishment today.” As Yogi Berra said, if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.

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Positive psychology lists 24 character strengths. What are yours? 

Martin Seligman - Authentic HappinessWhat are your weaknesses? What are your strengths? Which question is easier to answer?

For me at least, weaknesses are easy to identify – in-your-face failings that confront us every day. I am too anxious, perfectionistic, and rigid. I can be stubborn, cranky, and detached. 

The whole field of positive psychology was created on the idea that this is a larger pattern: as a society, we knew how to make people less unhappy but not happier. As part of the solution, psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson devised a complete categorization of the 24 character strengths. Together, they fall into six categories – six virtues – that are nearly universal across cultures: wisdom, courage, humanity and love, justice, temperance, and transcendence. 

Assessing your strengths isn’t just a fun personality test – although it is absolutely a fun personality test. The whole focus on strengths comes from their connection to happiness: for Seligman, exercising your strengths makes you feel happy and authentic, closer to the “ideal you” you always imagined. A bar of 80% dark chocolate may be pleasurable, but strengths are the stuff of long-lasting gratification. 

If you’re curious, you can take a test of your strengths here. But the machine doesn’t know you best: according to Seligman, your top strengths also have to feel authentic and powerful to you. You have to delight in exercising them, and feel energized afterward. Being prudent was one of my strengths, but exercising caution and carefulness usually makes me feel nervous. 

My top strengths that felt most authentic were perseverance, honesty, and judgment. If I have a job to do, I’m going to do it well and on time – no question. I strive for honesty in my relationships and delight in one-on-one, heart-to-heart conversations about ideas and feelings. And I love to take in new information, weigh it and synthesize it, and come up with my own opinions. 

What are your character strengths?

Wisdom 

Curiosity: You are open to new experiences and thrive in situations of uncertainty. You aren’t easily bored. 

Love of learning: You are the type of person who loves school, reading, and museums. You’re probably an expert in something, just because you love it. 

Judgment: You think critically and are open-minded to different perspectives. You can weigh facts objectively, without your feelings getting in the way. 

Ingenuity: You are creative and street smart. If you want something, you’ll find unique and original ways to get it. 

Perspective: You are wise, and people come to you for advice. 

Courage

Valor: Despite fear, you can face difficult physical and emotional challenges. 

Perseverance: You’re industrious, finishing what you start. You meet or exceed expectations, but don’t give yourself unattainable goals. 

Integrity: You are honest and transparent in word and in deed. 

Zest: You feel passion, inspiration, and energy when embarking on a new day or new activity. 

Humanity and Love 

Kindness: You enjoy making others happy, even if you don’t know them well. 

Loving and being loved: You have strong relationships, where you can accept and give love.

Social intelligence: You are aware of the feelings and motivations of others and of yourself, and you can use that information to handle social situations well.

Justice 

Citizenship: You work well in a group and respect your team members and leaders. 

Fairness: You have a strong sense of morality and believe in treating people the same, without regard for your feelings or prejudices.

Leadership: You successfully organize activities and treat group members equally. 

Temperance 

Self-control: You can regulate not only your actions but also your emotions. 

Prudence: You think long-term, weigh your options, and exercise caution. 

Humility: You’re modest and don’t seek attention. You don’t see your accomplishments as special. 

Forgiveness: You forgive and give people second chances. You aren’t vengeful and don’t hold a grudge.

Transcendence 

Appreciation of beauty: You recognize beauty and excellence, and it awes you. 

Gratitude: You’re thankful for other people and circumstances. You don’t take things for granted.

Optimism: You have hope and expect good things, so you plan for a happy future.

Spirituality: You have strong beliefs and a sense of purpose. You understand your place in something larger, whether it’s religious or not. 

Humor: You’re funny, and you enjoy making others laugh. 

Is the point of using your strengths just to achieve happiness? At the end of Authentic Happiness, Seligman makes a intriguing suggestion. He personally doesn’t believe in God the creator, but he can envision a world where we are (in essence) creating God. The march of society is a march toward perfect knowledge, perfect power, and perfect goodness. To find meaning, he believes, each of us can see ourselves as contributing to one of those three domains.

I feel strongly drawn toward the goal of wisdom, as I read, write blog posts, and get lost in conversations. Engineers or programmers, he says, may be drawn to create products and services that give us more control over our environment. Priests and nonprofits, I imagine, strive to make the world better. Once you know your strengths and your purpose, the next step is to take an honest look at your life to see if you’re living as powerfully, authentically, and meaningfully as possible. 

What is secretly motivating your actions?

compass

What motivates you?

For most people, the answer is easy but a little fuzzy: the things that are important to me, of course! I value my work, my boyfriend, my health, and that’s what gets me out of bed and through my day. 

You might go even further, and understand the specific things you value. I value being productive, learning and growing, reducing stress, and having deeper relationships. 

But in Before Happiness, happiness researcher Shawn Achor reveals that something else is probably motivating your actions besides values or meaning: hijackers.

“Our mental maps can become corrupted by hijackers, which are negative attitudes in our lives that lower our overall levels of happiness and derail our paths to success,” explains Achor. The problem is when they’re disguised as values or “meaning markers.”

Achor gives a few examples: wanting to lose weight because you don’t like yourself, a negative motivation that only makes you feel worse. Career advancement for the sake of climbing the ladder. Bosses who try to motivate with intimidation and fear. Worrying about negative comments on your upcoming book (or article, as it were…). 

In all these cases, we’re pushed forward by what feels like a motivator; we think we’re moving toward something we value. But our mindset is actually negative: we’re trying to avoid some painful reality we imagine, not seek a positive one. It reminds me of the idea that you should do things out of love, not fear.

“Fear is a map hijacker because when you activate the Jerk [the amygdala], you shut off the Thinker [the prefrontal cortex] and thus waste your valuable and finite brain resources on avoiding and fleeing from that fear instead of pursuing your goals,” he explains. 

I’m guilty of this myself sometimes. Although I value health, sometimes my health-oriented actions actually stem from a fear of being unhealthy. When I agonize over whether to have dessert and feel guilty afterward, that’s my fear talking. I’m strongly motivated by the idea of not wasting time – that’s a positive, right? – but it often leads to frustration and annoyance. And the desire to be perfect seems like a worthy goal until it compels me to do things I don’t really want to do just because I “should.” 

To discover your hijackers, Achor has a few suggestions: 

  • Write down 5 triggers that consistently lead to unproductive or destructive behavior
  • Ask yourself: Do certain activities tend to make you unhappy or distract you from your goals?

To identify my hijackers, it helped to think about the times when I feel strongly compelled to do certain things. 

Luckily, hijackers can be ditched and replaced with positive meaning. Instead of fearing disease, I can focus on my desire to be healthy, have energy, and stay fit. Instead of being annoyed at wasting time, I can focus on taking time for the things I really enjoy. Instead of being perfect, I can focus on being happy. 

Do you have any hijackers disguised as values?

Photo by Flickr user Olfiika 

“The Power of Now” translated for logical people 

Eckhart Tolle - Power of NowA few years ago, I would have scoffed at Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and put it down after the first page. Any book that talked about Being with a capital “B” was surely not worth my attention, a waste of my intelligent, rational mind.

Today, I’m in a humbler place. I’m not so sure I’ve got it all figured out, because I’m not 100% happy. I still roll my eyes when I drop in on overly mystical yoga classes, but I have started meditating and practicing mindfulness. 

So when I picked up The Power of Now, I could tolerate a little bit of the Being talk – because the message was appealing, and not altogether illogical. By living in the present and practicing acceptance, Tolle says, anyone can cultivate an undercurrent of peace and bliss in their lives. And we can all do that right now

“You ‘get’ there by realizing that you are there already,” says Tolle. “There is nothing you can ever do or attain that will get you closer to salvation than it is at this moment.” Well, then.

Did I lose you yet? If not, let’s take a look at these claims one by one. 

Living in the present

Even the most rational among us have to accept that the present is all there is. You never exist in the past, or in the future; every moment is the present. Beyond that, any idea we have of the past or the future is likely skewed by our interpretation: maybe we look nostalgically on the past, or we envision a depressing future. 

“You can always cope with the present moment, but you cannot cope with something that is only a mind projection – you cannot cope with the future,” Tolle says.

For Tolle, living in the present – the Now – means eliminating unproductive thoughts about the past or future. Sure, he acknowledges that we have to plan and set goals, but he warns against the kind of distracting thoughts that keep us from being fully present with a conversation with a loved one, or the singing of the birds, or the feeling of our bodies. If we worry about the future even after we’ve done everything we can to prepare for it, we’re wasting time. If we harp overly on the past, we may start to construct a narrative about ourselves: we’re an “anxious person,” a “smart person,” a “failure.” We forget that the present is a blank canvas.

Another example of not living in the present is something I’m guilty of: “waiting.” You look toward some goal, some future moment in time when you’ll finally reach happiness, and forget to enjoy the present.

“If you then become excessively focused on the goal, perhaps because you are seeking happiness, fulfillment, or a more complete sense of self in it, the Now is no longer honored. It becomes reduced to a mere stepping stone to the future, with no intrinsic value,” says Tolle. “Your life’s journey is no longer an adventure, just an obsessive need to arrive, to attain, to ‘make it.’ You no longer see or smell the flowers by the wayside either, nor are you aware of the beauty and the miracle of life that unfolds all around you when you are present in the now.” 

He adds, “It is not uncommon for people to spend their whole life waiting to start living.” Carl Jung once spoke to a native American chief, who saw the tense faces of white people and asked, “What are they seeking?” 

When our minds seem to run away from us, we can look to children or animals, who completely engage themselves in the joy of the moment. In complete seriousness, Tolle writes, “I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats.”

Acceptance

Just as, logically, the present is all that exists, we should also accept it – because it exists. 

“Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment,’” says Tolle. “What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to something that already is?”

Yet we go through life with so much resistance, if we take a moment to notice it. We complain when things don’t go our way – fighting them. We stay home watching TV and feel lazy, resisting our decision. We get stressed and hate the feeling of constriction and tension in our chests.

Tolle’s acceptance isn’t the passive kind, where you just say, “That’s the way things are” and do nothing. He acknowledges that you might decide to act – in just a moment. First, you have to take a good look at reality, and realize that it is. It’s the clay that you have to work with, the default conditions. Then you can do what you have to do, but without the burden of resentment and bitterness. 

What’s wrong with this picture? 

It’s easy to critique Tolle by attacking the idea that anyone is deserving and able to achieve peace and bliss. What about a serial killer, or someone who just lost a spouse? Are our character, our family, our achievements of so little value that they don’t count? Do we all deserve perfect self-esteem?

Like many things about The Power of Now, it comes down to interpretation. The way I interpret what Tolle’s saying is that we all have access to the very profound feeling that I am enough, and life is okay. I am alive, and whatever happens to me, I have the power to accept it and decide how to deal with it – internally and externally. It’s like we’re all constructing buildings – some more beautiful than others – but this sense of peace and bliss is our common foundation, if only we choose to lay it. “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place,” Tolle says. 

The harder idea to accept is Tolle’s assertion that we are not our minds. If you can observe your mind, he says, then the “you” doing the observing must be something other than your mind. To Tolle, that’s the real you – the you that is beyond thought or emotion. It consists in the energy and life force of Being. 

But whose mind is it, or what is the mind, if not us? I’d prefer to see the mind as one part of us, and not always the most life-enhancing part. Our minds can torment us, distract us, get us carried away on spirals of obsession or despair. But I can’t go so far as to accept that that’s not part of who we are. 

In the end, it’s hard to argue with Tolle, because he doesn’t mean to be taken literally. He actually says that some sections of the book don’t convey information, but rather speak to our inner essence in an attempt to conjure up those feelings of peace and bliss, of recognition. This assertion – while frustrating – also makes it easier to look beyond Tolle’s talk of things like “Being,” the “pain body,” and the immortality of our essence. As I interpret it, those are just mental tactics that help conjure up the right feelings and get us in the right mindset to deal with the emotions of life. 

Have I lost my mind in taking this seriously? My confident, hyper-rational college self would think so. But in reading the first few chapters of The Power of Now, I felt a sense of relief. Happiness – or peace, as Tolle prefers – is not only possible, but possible now. It may not be easy, but it is simple. And we get there by being aware of what’s happening around us and inside us, and saying yes to it. 

8 happiness hacks you can do in 5 minutes 

Find Happiness NowShortcuts to happiness don’t exist, right?

Wrong, says author Jonathan Robinson. He’s the author of Find Happiness Now: 50 Shortcuts for Bringing More Love, Balance, and Joy into Your Life

I’ve read my fair share of “tricks” to be happier, and most of them fall flat. Not so with this book. If Robinson were younger, he might have called his tips “happiness hacks” – simple, genius, colorful ways to boost your mood in just a few minutes. 

The challenge is actually doing them and – for me at least – the easiest way to start is to do a one-month experiment to create the habit. So here are 8 happiness hacks you could try every day: 

1. Set your priorities before breakfast

I’m obsessed with the topic of work-life balance lately, and this tactic gets to the heart of it. Before breakfast, Robinson recommends, think of the seven things you want to do today and prioritize them. This includes work stuff, but also personal activities. Ask yourself, “What’s really important to do today in order to create a balanced, happy life?”

“Asking myself what’s important helps remind me that the bottom line in life is not how much I do or make. Instead, it’s how much of my dreams of creating joy, love, and contribution I can integrate into my day-to-day life,” he says. 

2. Write down 3 good things 

According to Robinson, even if you do this technique for just a week, you’ll be 25 percent happier even six months later. There’s a ton of research about gratitude journaling, and it actually works. 

According to Marty Seligman, who invented “Three Good Things,” the key is what you do after you write them down: pause for a moment and reflect on how you and your personality traits helped bring them about. Then, positivity becomes part of your identity. 

“You start to understand that no matter how difficult a situation you’re in, your ability to laugh, or connect with others, or learn something new or whatever is good about you can help create a special moment. The power is within you,” explains Robinson.  

Some people journal at the end of the day, and others write down happy moments as they come along. I’m in the midst of trying this out for a month, using Happier.

3. Do a “thank you” mantra 

Like “Three Good Things,” the thank you technique is about appreciating the things in your life. But this one goes even further: to do it, you simply start saying thank you for everything you see around you – good and bad:

“Thank you for my car, thank you for my iPhone, thank you for this beautiful music, thank you for this nicely paved road, thank you for the man that just cut me off, thank you for the anger that stirred up in me, thank you for the opportunity to practice forgiveness,” writes Robinson. 

The idea is to train yourself to stop taking things for granted, and even start appreciating the silver lining in the “bad” things. 

4. Belt a song in your head

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say, but Robinson recommends that you silently belt out songs that fire you up when you need a confidence boost. To top it off, adopt the facial expression and swagger of your favorite superhero, and you’ll be ready to conquer the world. 

“If you really allow yourself to let go and pretend, you’ll soon find that it no longer feels like an act. You will feel totally self-assured. You will be unstoppable,” explains Robinson. 

It’s not such a crazy idea – just watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power postures, and you’ll learn how certain positions release different hormones into our bodies, making us feel stressed or invigorated. 

5. Listen to a magical song 

Songs can give us confidence, but they can also give us peace and inspiration. Robinson recommends that you create a magical playlist with your favorite uplifting songs. When you feel the stress coming on – or maybe for an afternoon break – you can pause for 5 or 10 minutes to soothe your soul. 

“Your mind will be clearer and your soul more soothed,” he writes. “With hardly any effort at all, you’ll find that you’re more centered in your heart and better able to handle whatever life throws your way.” 

6. Get rejected 

The problem with rejection, Robinson explains, is that we see it as a failure – and fear it. But if you create a rejection goal – say, one rejection per day – getting rejected becomes a success! That means you’ll have to ask for what you want more often, and you may get some unexpected yes’s along the way. 

If you’re so inclined, you can actually do a 30-day Rejection Therapy experiment. It comes with iPhone and Android apps, and there’s even an Entrepreneur edition. 

7. Meditate 

If you’ve been reading the news at all lately, you’ve probably heard that meditation is like a miracle drug with no side effects. It makes you more focused and creative, reduces anxiety, improves your memory, makes you more compassionate, and much more. In his book, Robinson suggests two meditations that you could practice: 

The pure love meditation: After getting comfortable, picture someone you love giving you a heart-melting look and think about why you appreciate them. Imagine hugging them and your souls being connected. “The Pure Love Meditation is a practical way to build a bridge to the ‘kingdom of heaven within,’” he explains. 

The jaw-dropping meditation: Take about 5 minutes to be aware of the tension in your jaw and face and let it all go, letting your jaw drop wide. When you open your eyes, imagine that you just arrived in your body and are seeing the world through new eyes. 

8. Journal 

We have 50,000 thoughts a day, Robinson says, and the enlightened ones often slip away and are forgotten. To catch them before they fade, get in the habit of writing down your best ideas and goals right away. 

“I have found that since my brain now realizes I take its insights seriously, over the years I’ve had many more important realizations than I used to have,” he says. 

Every week or month, read through your journal and feel the inspiration.  

I love the idea of life experiments, and I plan to do more in the future. Would you try any of these techniques, just for a month? 

6 ways to be more self-confident

self-confidence

I’ve come to realize that self-confidence is one of the components of positivity. To be optimistic about the future, you have to believe that you’ll be able to handle it.

So I wasn’t surprised to find rules for increasing self-confidence in Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Here are six of the secular ones:

  1. Imagine what success would look like. Your brain will automatically work to make it a reality.
  2. When you think a negative thought, counter it with a positive one. (It’s raining, but at least I get to use my new umbrella!)
  3. Don’t ignore your troubles, but don’t inflate them into huge obstacles, either.
  4. Be yourself: don’t try to imitate other people.
  5. If you feel inferior to others, figure out why. (Knowing thyself is so important.)
  6. Do an honest assessment of your abilities, then add 10 percent.

Photo by Flickr user glsims99

The power of negative thinking

negative thinkingIn The Power of Positive Thinking (originally published in 1952), Dr. Norman Vincent Peale talks about how focusing on your woes is bound to inflate them.

“If you or I or anybody think constantly of the forces that seem to be against us, we will build them up into a power far beyond that which is justified. They will assume a formidable strength which they do not actually possess.”

His example? A depressed man who said he had nothing left in his life. When questioned, it turned out that he had loving family and friends, integrity, and faith.

I’ve certainly experienced this – like most human beings. When I missed a flight recently, it felt like the worst day of my life. I forgot that I had an understanding family across the ocean in the States, and a kind fiancé who went on a futile mission to fetch my passport in time. There have also been instances when I feel overwhelmed by the huge weight of stress or fear, only to realize that the circumstances don’t warrant it.

It turns out that if we focus on something, our brain often distorts the perception of everything else. Inattentional blindness is when our eyes zero in on one thing and become blind to the rest of reality – a gorilla included. Under the availability heureistic, we judge probabilities based on how easily we can think of examples; because the media (and our attention) has focused on plane crashes rather than car crashes, we believe they’re more likely to happen to us.

For me, the solution is to pause and figure out the reasons I’m feeling down – and not just let the emotion grow into this big, unidentified, mysterious glob. For Peale, the solution is (unsurprisingly) positive thinking.

If “you mentally visualize and affirm and reaffirm your assets and keep your thoughts on them, emphasizing them to the fullest extent,” he writes, “you will rise out of any difficulty regardless of what it may be.”

Photo by Flickr user Sean MacEntee

17 habits of optimists

The Optimism AdvantageIn The Optimism Advantage, psychology PhD Terry Paulson offers 50 tips for how to be optimistic. He developed these insights over 30 years of doing programs on optimism and change for companies like the Federal Reserve, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart. Here are 17 habits of optimists gleaned from the book:

1. Optimists are realists who have overcome challenges in the past, and believe they’ll overcome them again.

“If you think optimism means adopting a Pollyanna mind-set where everything turns out right, then you’ve got the wrong idea . . . True optimists have earned their positive attitude from a proven track record of overcoming real obstacles. They did it the old-fashioned way; they earned confidence one obstacle, one challenge, and one victory at a time!” – Paulson

2. Optimists adopt a survivor mentality and believe they’re in control of their lives. They don’t think like victims or look for others to blame.

3. Optimists don’t ask “why me?” They understand that life isn’t fair or unfair; it just is.

4. Optimists are grateful.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is.” – Albert Einstein

5. Optimists put the bad in perspective and even see the good in it.

6. Optimists consume heroic, inspiring stories (like biographies) rather than negative news on TV.

7. Optimists have a purpose that helps them overcome obstacles and stress with a positive attitude.

“Be a humble explorer, repeatedly becoming a beginner in new arenas as you keep shaping your life one day at a time. Finding your purpose is too important a goal to come easily, and it’s worth every second of the struggle!” – Paulson

8. Optimists keep learning new knowledge and skills so they can be confident they’ll be prepared for the future.

9. Optimists take care of their bodies by eating and exercising well.

10. Optimists embrace action and are constantly adapting their strategies and goals (like entrepreneurs).

“The tragedy of life is not how soon it ends, but how long you wait to begin it.” – Paulson

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” – Will Rogers

11. Optimists aren’t afraid to fail, because they know failure is part of the journey to success.

“To have a great idea, have a lot of them.” – Thomas Edison

12. Optimists dispute the negative thoughts in their head by looking for conflicting evidence, entertaining alternatives, focusing on the most likely rather than the worst consequences, and recognizing that worry is useless.

13. Instead of calling themselves names, optimists focus on constructive criticism of their own actions. They ask: what did I do wrong? How can I fix it? How will I act differently next time?

14. Optimists focus on what they’re doing right and recognize their accomplishments.

15. Optimists take advantage of simple pleasures and humor.

16. Optimists surround themselves with optimistic people and make time for them.

17. Optimists understand that it takes hard work to stay optimistic.

Want more? Check out Terry L. Paulson’s “The Optimism Advantage: 50 Simple Truths to Transform Your Attitudes and Actions into Results.”

Book summary: “The Optimism Bias” by Tali Sharot

Tali Sharot - The Optimism BiasDon’t have time to read? Here’s a quick but comprehensive summary of Tali Sharot’s The Optimism Bias, released in 2011.

Who should read this: Optimists interested in justifying their positive outlook, or pessimists who want a reason to change.

Elevator pitch: Though we don’t realize it, most of us are optimists. And the optimism bias has its benefits: we perceive the world in positive ways and are more likely to take actions toward our rosy future. But we need to be wary of extreme optimism and the network effects of group optimism.

Author: Tali Sharot is a research fellow at the University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. She has a PhD in psychology and neuroscience from New York University.

Summary 

The optimism bias makes us overestimate the likelihood of positive events and underestimate the likelihood of negative ones. Tali Sharot stumbled upon it while researching the way we imagine the future: she noticed that people’s imaginings were very rosy.

The optimism bias is one of the illusions of the human brain, just like spatial disorientation, the bias blind spot, and the introspection illusion. But learning about the optimism bias won’t make it go away.

We likely developed optimism at the same time we developed the ability to imagine the future (prospection); otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to deal with the thought of death.

Optimism translates into better outcomes because when we expect something great and don’t achieve it, our brain’s frontal lobe goes to work figuring out why and learning for the future. If we don’t expect greatness, this doesn’t happen. And studies have shown that optimists live longer and are less likely to die from accidental or violent events because they take active steps to protect themselves. “Hope . . . enables people to embrace their goals and stay committed to moving toward them,” writes Sharot.

We tend to be optimistic about our personal future but pessimistic about the public future. When times are so bad that our personal optimism is shaken, we look to figures like Shirley Temple and Barack Obama to restore hope.

We’re notoriously bad about knowing what will make us happy: in fact, having kids and spending more time with them is correlated with unhappiness, while wealth and marriage aren’t as straightforwardly enjoyable as we think. The factors consistently associated with happiness are gardening, going to church, playing sports, and having a higher educational degree.

Part of the reason for this is that our memory is faulty: we remember the emotional highlights of experiences (like vacation), when in fact that experience was predominantly mundane. We also tend to focus on the thing that’s changing (e.g., getting richer) while ignoring all the things that don’t change (e.g., having to do laundry).

The real thing that makes us happy is our optimism – the way we overestimate our future happiness. Surprisingly, the most accurate predictions of the future come from mildly depressed people.

According to psychologist Martin Seligman, depression is often accompanied by a “pessimistic explanatory style”: we tend to blame ourselves for misfortune, believe it’s permanent, and believe it affects all areas of life. Depressed people also exhibit “learned helplessness,” the feeling that they’re not in control of their lives (which leads to passivity).

Some antidepressants actually work by giving us a bias for the positive: thanks to serotonin, we’re more likely to see and remember positive stimuli, and interpret ambiguous situations as positive (like someone teasing you).

In addition to overestimating the probability of positive events, optimistic people are happier because they imagine positive events more vividly and expect them to occur sooner. This all boosts the luscious feeling of anticipation, which is greater the more pleasurable the anticipated event, the more vividly we can imagine it, the more probable we think it is to happen, and the sooner it will be happening.

That would seem to suggest that we should always delay gratification, prolonging the period of anticipation. But choosing when to enjoy ourselves is a balance between anticipation and temporal discounting, our tendency to value the future less.

Another way our brain increases positive emotions is to value things more after we’ve chosen them. After you decide between two pairs of shoes you like equally, you’ll say you like your choice better. This can be explained by cognitive dissonance theory: our brain works to reduce psychological discomfort so we can move on with our lives instead of constantly questioning our choices. This effect even holds true when we think we made a choice but we actually didn’t.

To retain our optimism, we store vivid memories of negative events (so we can avoid them in the future). We end up believing our memories are incredibly accurate, when in fact we’re remembering the core emotion well but not the secondary details.

We also protect our happiness by adapting to negative circumstances: after major events like divorce, winning the lottery, or becoming paraplegic, our happiness levels eventually return to normal. This is because of the “impact bias”: we overrate the effects of negative situations. We don’t imagine all the positive things that will stay the same when disaster strikes (like friends and family), or the new skills and opportunities that it affords.

Optimism only has a downside when it becomes extreme: studies show that extreme optimism is correlated with poor decisions. Extreme optimism makes us reckless, whereas moderate optimism allows us to keep our chins up and dive in.

In summary, most people exhibit an optimism bias. Optimism influences our perception, so we tend to see more good in the world. It also influences our actions, so we tend to take steps to achieve our goals.

Grade: A-

The Optimism Bias isn’t a self-help book: it provides us mainly with facts about the optimism bias, not ways to cultivate or maintain it. A few chapters wander off a little bit into Sharot’s expertise of memory and imagination, but the diversions are interesting nonetheless. The good news is that there isn’t much self-help work to be done, except avoiding extreme optimism. If you aren’t depressed, your brain is already envisioning a rosy future – whether you realize it or not.

Not All Bookworms Hate Technology

A professor of English at Wheaton College, who spent his childhood reading instead of watching TV, Alan Jacobs could easily be one of those people who lament the demise of the book and blame fast-paced, 140-character Internet culture. But instead, in a lecture I attended last week, he explained why the Kindle taught him to love to read again.

Like many of us these days, Jacobs recently found his attention span shortening. He couldn’t bring himself to spend hours and hours immersed in books, as he had for years before. But once he got a Kindle, he could read again. His theory? The buttons give his fingers something to do, calming the compulsive desire to check email or surf the Internet.

Jacobs is the author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which looks to be a delightful read.