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Illusory Confidence

August 5, 2011

Impulsive optimism has proved itself to be a truly global phenomenon. Could be intergalactic. The truth is that people everywhere are apt to display unrealistic optimism about the future, a pervasive and ubiquitous bias afflicting practically all, save the clinically depressed. Students overestimate future exam grades, newlyweds expect their marriages to last a lifetime, smokers underestimate their risk of cancer, etc. Interestingly, psychologists have discovered that illusory confidence like this is not the maladaptive habit that it would appear to be at first glance. To the contrary, it’s a necessary precondition for (or at least conducive to) mental health, as well as lifelong success (Taylor & Brown, 1994). A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…is truly applicable here. Those sterile scientists might label your idealism a bias, but you yourself might simply call it hope.

And most of us are indeed hopeful about our prospects for ever-increasing happiness. All it takes is a little hard work and positive thinking, right?

Well, not quite my precious flower child. You see, it’s not nearly that simple. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence to back up Thirteen’s (and House’s) fatalistic point of view, that our happiness appears to be, to a large extent, out of our hands. That evidence comes mainly in the form of studies showing that happiness is pre-determined at birth by each person’s own distinctive, irreversible genetic make-up.

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