We Are All Optimistic
I’ve always been wary of planning too much for the future. Too many times I’ve been severely disappointed by how things turn out radically different than what I’d hoped, or fall severely short of my expectations.
And yet, I don’t stop wishing, and hoping, and thinking, and dreaming.
In fact, many of us have experienced failure, heartbreak, and rejection. Some people are motivated by such adversity, and harness their disappointment into positive energy to strive for what they want. Most of us, myself included, mope around for a while, asking God and ourselves, “Why me?” But eventually, we dust ourselves off and move on.
The ability of most humans to do this is explored in a recent issue of TIME magazine. Studies have shown that most humans are cognitively-inclined towards positive thinking, a phenomenon termed “the optimism bias”.[pullquote_left]Studies have shown that most humans are cognitively-inclined towards positive thinking, a phenomenon termed “the optimism bias”.[/pullquote_left]Tali Sharot, a research fellow at University College London’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, found that:
our brains are wired to eliminate or repress unhappy details or memories, to find the silver lining in unpleasant situations, and to hold ourselves and our loved ones in high esteem.
In many ways, such behaviour is, quite simply, a survival instinct. Being inherently optimistic allows us to overcome adversity and continue to be productive. A “once bitten, twice shy” attitude would not have brought acclaim and success to the likes of Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, and even our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Our Prophet (pbuh) suffered many setbacks and obstacles in his path to spread Islam and Allah’s word, and yet he did not give up. Of course, much of this can be attributed to his own devotion and diligence to what Allah had commanded of him, but it also speaks volumes of the human ability to press on and believe we will succeed even when the odds are against us.
Another interesting finding is that although cynicism and pessimism may be endemic to today’s world, where we are inundated with bad news daily, Sharot observed that people continue to exhibit “private optimism, about [their] personal future”.
Case in point: on a recent trip to Sri Lanka, my mother, who has been suffering from knee problems for the past few years, declared this to be the last holiday she’ll ever take. She said she no longer has the stamina or the threshold to withstand the pain that comes with walking around all day. I smiled when I heard that, because barely two months ago, she had said the exact same thing when we were holidaying in Sydney. She may have either repressed the memories about her aching legs from the last holiday or she may have privately believed that this time it somehow wouldn’t be as bad.
On a more serious scale, as I travelled through Sri Lanka’s tsunami-ravaged south-eastern coast, I noticed that people there too have displayed a certain optimism. Despite the fact that the fateful Boxing Day tsunami had killed tens of thousands of coastal-living Sri Lankans, seven years on, many of them have rebuilt their damaged beach-front homes and shops, some fortified with brick and concrete. They probably believe that such a horrible tragedy could not possibly strike them twice in a lifetime.
Sharot also included an opinion that really got me thinking: “Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.” This suggests that unless humans are able to imagine a life worth living, they’d be overwhelmed by the idea of death.[pullquote_right]This suggests that unless humans are able to imagine a life worth living, they’d be overwhelmed by the idea of death.[/pullquote_right]
For Muslims, I think this theory works hand-in-hand with our imaan. What prevents us from curling up in a corner waiting for our imminent, inevitable death is our obligations and responsibilities as Muslims, as well as the optimistic belief that we would be able to accumulate enough good in our lives to please Allah and enter the gates of jannah. In a way, this optimism is an important part of our lives.
It’s not always easy being optimistic about things, but it really does seem a much better choice than pessimism. Sure, the propensity for disappointment is there, but the one can hardly achieve anythimg by living life avoiding failure, rejection and disappointment. Take a look at your life today–where can you make a change in your mindset from glass half empty to glass half full?
Shahirah is an aspiring journalist who is interested in social issues, women’s rights, the Middle East conflict, and Islam in the Western world. She is also interested in languages and is currently studying the Arabic language.