Tuesday, July 12, 2011

IS OPTIMISM YOUR BIAS?

The picture shows where your thoughts -- negative and positive -- reside, and what part of the brain is involved with optimistic, positive thinking. It indicates where your hopes, fears, goals, and alternatives sit and formulate your sense of reality.

(Did you notice the spot in the back of the head marked "look on the bright side. " I wonder if it responds to a gentle massage?)

Is optimism something you can rev up? A seed you can plant, water and, nurture? Right now, almost everything in the news is negative, disturbing, and worrisome. I search for hopeful, positive ideas to write about, but right now it's difficult. I'm looking for words, a mantra, a prayer, some kind of routine I can do that will make me more hopeful.

Tali Sharot, one of the world’s most innovative neuro-scientists and a research fellow at University College London, has just published "The Optimism Bias. " Her articles have been featured in Newsweek and The Washington Post. In her new book, she examines how and why humans tend toward optimism, and how this bias affects our lives. So of course, I read every word in the cover story Sharot wrote for Time Magazine, and studied the picture.

Sharot describes various tests and experiments, and concludes that we are more optimistic than realistic -- most of us believe the future will be much better than the past and present -- "bad news" or misfortunes do not erode one's personal private optimism -- we are resilient. She maintains that a "bias" toward optimism abides in every race, region and socio-economic bracket.

(Her conclusions sound sort of too good to be true, but I'm not a neuro/socio anything, just a person who's been around for quite awhile and done a lot of hoping.)

Explaining that the ability to think positively relates to how well you can imagine yourself in the future, Sharot (and the other research scientists with whom she's worked), suggest that optimism may be hardwired into the human brain by evolution.

Hmm. What I personally know about optimism isn't even mentioned by her or any of her neuro-pals.

In the 80's, driving to the wedding of my sister's daughter, I got the idea to write (I'm tooting my imaginary horn -- da-da-da -daa taa taaah), "The Woman of the Century."

Back from the wedding, an extravaganza my sister produced, (she made the cake, the food, the decor all by herself), I headed for the best encyclopedia book store in NYC to buy history reference books, and find out what history was most important to me. The friendly owner, advising me what to buy, said, "Dear heart, don't count on your book being sold."

(I'd proudly told him that my idea was to tell the story of a girl, born with the 20th century -- same birthday as the date, so that as she grew up, events in her life coincided with the major inventions, wars, innovations, changes, crazes, trends like liberation and integration, and new stuff such as telephones, brillo, the PILL, bikinis.)

I loved my idea. The more I worked on it, the more I devoured history fact books. What the bookstore guy said, what anyone said was "who cares" in my mind -- dismissed in the way one dismisses one's parents protectively warning you not to try to be a number one anything.

I made an "Emily's History" -- a huge three-ring notebook in which I listed major happenings, and trivia for every year and an outline of the life of "Cordelia." (As a tribute to my actor husband, I gave my heroine a Shakespearean name.) I loved outlining, planning, envisioning scenes for my "best seller." Writing the first chapter, loving what I wrote, I figured I'd get a Pulitzer Prize.

My pride and joy in the project grew as I wrote the next chapter, and the next of this book, which I have written, re-written, revised, re-conceived, and re-written seven times, while writing five other novels.

This book has not been published. The first 500 pages were sold to Putnam; I got a big advance in 1993. When I sent in the finished book, Putnam demanded the advance back, claiming the writing was incompetent. Was it incompetent? NO. But the publisher was having its own budget troubles back then. Suffice to say, it was a demoralizing mess that was never resolved.

Yes, I'm still working on "The Woman of the Century." with its new title, "Somebody." I am "optimistic," hopeful -- fired up by my important, wonderful idea. (Hey, whoa, is this realistic after the book was subsequently rejected by other editors and publishers? Yes! It's realistic -- privately, inwardly. I am realistic because I believe in my idea.)

Yes, I'm writing with the energy, the curiosity, the skills I've honed from writing other things, and re-writing.

Nitty gritty -- do I still think it's a bestseller? Am I hoping to earn fame, or money, a movie deal, a Pulitzer? I have thought about things like that at various times. Not today; not yesterday; not last month. What I love about my book is the work of the work.

Optimism is self belief, confidence. doing work that interests you, challenges you -- work you believe in and want to fix and must do, because you want to do it.

Ah yes -- it's bias, a marvelous mountain of optimistic bias, and I'm still climbing, breathing in the refined wonderfully fresh, air, climbing and ascending.

3 comments:

Carola said...

Obviously you would never have finished Somebody if you hadn't had optimism. My husband is more optimistic than I am. But even though I am a knee-jerk worrier, I tend to be in denial that bad things can happen.

Linda Phillips said...

Em, I think I know you well enough to know that you are a mega optimist! I have never ever heard you say anything even approaching.."I am worried about the future". I do know you worry about JC and his well being. That is because you love him so much, but I have never heard you worry that he will not have a new play to act in or a new project to work on. You are a true optimist.

I am glad to say that I join you in that respect and I know that you know that! Today may bring problems, but I know that eventually they will get resolved. Most often we HAVE TO GET THEM RESOLVED OURSELVES, but we are BOTH FIGHTERS. I think that is why we have so much respect for each other. We are cut from the same cloth!

You go my darling friend!

Love,

Linda
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Anonymous said...

How about 'realistically optimistic'? Pollyanna type of 'optimism' doesn't often bare fruit, but hard work, rational thinking, preseverance, talent coupled with realistic optimism is a happy way for me. I've come to the conclusion that 'worrying' is hard wired and enhanced in a person by genetics and environment. I ask myself, where did worrying ever make me better, safer, helped me or others in some fashion? It never has, never will, it's planning and thinking and hard work that makes a difference for me. xxxxxoooo Heather

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