The Grit: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Most of us can’t process bad news because our brains won’t let us.


The Grit: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
Optimism in the face of reality clouds our brains (Picture: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Despite previous blog posts which may suggest the contrary, The Grit is not a doom-laden harbinger of imminent apocalypse. The potentially catastrophic scenarios sketched out on these webpages over the last few months aren’t dispatched with an accompanying sense of futility or despair.

It’s not because they are overexaggerated. They’re not. It’s not because the situations described aren’t serious. They are. It’s just…y’see…The Grit is an optimist. 

According to the stats, 80 percent of us are optimists. Optimism isn’t just the ability to look on the bright side; it’s a basic requirement for running the human race.

We know that in the big scheme of things (despite what your mom says), you are a tiny, insignificant speck, bumbling through a short and pointless life. Yet you still find the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. That feeling, the one that gives you the strength to fight another day, is optimism, a central facet of the human condition.

But not necessarily a helpful one. In the best-named academic paper of the year so far, “How unrealistic optimism is maintained in the face of reality,” researchers from University College London found most of us remain optimistic because our brains are incapable of accepting unhappy situations.

Fourteen volunteers were put in a brain scanner and given 80 bad scenarios (e.g. getting divorced). The volunteers were asked, in percentage terms, how likely it was each scenario would happen to them. After recording their answers, they were told the actual statistical likelihood.

For example, three in 10 of us will contract cancer at some stage in our lives. When told this, those in the experiment who guessed their own likelihood of contracting cancer was 40 percent downgraded their expectation to 31 percent, close to the statistical likelihood.

But when those who guessed they had a 10 percent chance of contracting cancer were told it was more likely to be nearer to 30 percent, they would not budge from their initial guess of 10 percent. Essentially they refused to believe it was going to happen to them. 

This is not down to willful cussedness or conscious stupidity. According to the brain activity being shown up in the scan, the volunteers could not comprehend the facts, because, in optimists, the brain sends “bad” news to parts of the brain where it turns into jumbled mush. 

Artists, writers and storytellers have known it for years. We’re suckers for epic struggles and one-in-a-million longshots.

It’s a dramatic revelation. We can see from these scans that selective processing is hard-wired, which means our inability to deal with negative information is a crucial part of what makes us human. 

Artists, writers and storytellers have known it for years. We’re suckers for epic struggles and one-in-a-million longshots. What was the Apple slogan being bandied about last week, in reference to Steve Jobs’ passing? “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Facing down insurmountable odds is precisely how we have ensured the survival of the species. 

But there is a downside. As the University College London lead researcher Dr. Tali Sharot tells us:

“The negative aspect [of refusing to process ‘bad’ information properly] is that we underestimate risks.”

Optimism does not inoculate anyone against failure. Eight in ten crackpot inventors will never make money. Three in ten optimists will still get cancer. They just won’t believe you until it happens.

The very lunacy that sends us chasing rainbows and tilting at windmills and occasionally advancing the human race is the collective delusion which, one day, could finally see us finished. It’s a sobering thought. Well, it might be if you were really taking this in. Hello? Hello…?

Ah, there you are. Read this blog and you will know the world is in trouble. Now that you know most of us are mentally incapable of realizing the scale of this trouble, how do you feel? Optimistic?