Hardwired For Optimism

There is a fourteen million to one chance that you will be disappointed every time you buy a six digit lottery ticket. Add to that the fact that, even if your lottery ticket does not immediately lead to disappointment, you have a 70% chance of even more disappointment in your future, in the form of bankruptcy, simply based on the fact that your lottery ticket did not lead to immediate disappointment. Why then, in spite of these terrible odds, do Americans spend roughly $80 billion each year on lottery tickets with the hope that they will beat the odds and find satisfaction, not disappointment, through chance? The answer, I think, is twofold.

First of all, humans are hardwired for optimism. Consider our hunter gatherer roots. We used to wake up every morning with essentially nothing and then go out into the forest to scrounge for nuts, berries, and maybe catch some fish or kill some game. Nothing was promised, but we hoped and we tried. If in a day we spent more calories than we were able to consume, it didn’t stop us from trying again the next day.

Similarly, in modern times, we wake up every day and go to work for the promise of a paycheck and a better tomorrow, even maybe retirement someday. We do this in spite of the fact that we could be laid off any day for reasons completely outside of our control and, the fact is, that most of us will never live to enjoy our retirement years, if we can even afford retirement. Nothing is guaranteed, yet we remain hopeful and continue to trudge along.

The second reason is that the game is rigged. The lottery companies, the casinos, etc. all know that our optimism is stronger than our rationality. They know that our hope for a better tomorrow overrides any knowledge we may have of statistics or percentages. They market to this hope and this optimism and they make billions off of it, capitalizing on disappointment and our inherent need to try again anyway. They are not alone.

Politicians function exactly the same way. We all know in our rational minds that the politicians cannot possibly keep the promises that they make because that is not how the game works, but hope is stronger than a reason and we continue to vote for them with the hope that, like our next lottery ticket, things will be different this time and we will not be disappointed. The chances of this happening are slim to none, but we pick a side, we fight, we argue, and we vote to tell the world that our optimism is stronger than our disappointment.

Social media, fast food, television shows, fashion trends, and the newest tech devices, all of these have a much greater chance of leaving us disappointed than in giving us long-lasting, meaningful satisfaction. Still, we click. We consume. We watch. We buy. We hope. We spend our time, our energy, and our optimism on that which is most likely to give us disappointment and dissatisfaction.

What if every day we invested just a little bit of that time, energy, and optimism into doing something creative? What if each of us, every day of the week, took our hopes, our dreams, and our positive imaginations and we made something new or transformed something old into something better? What if, instead of wasting our optimism on the lottery, the politicians, and the corporations, we used it to make a song, paint a picture, write a story, build something, fix something, transform something, cook something, grow something, or just simply to do something? We would be rewarded tenfold and the only thing we have to lose is disappointment.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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