Opinion: Optimists are stupid. Serves them right. | Opinion | DW | 27.08.2019
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Life-prolonging optimism

Opinion: Optimists are stupid. Serves them right.

Research by Boston University's School of Medicine in the USA suggests optimists have a 50 percent chance of living longer than pessimists. The study fills DW's Zulfikar Abbany with dread.

If there was a school of pessimism, mine would be the School of Woody Allen: "I see the glass half full, but of poison."

For many years, I stole from another darksider, the British author Will Self. At a reading in London sometime in the 1990s, someone in the audience asked whether Self saw himself as a pessimist or an optimist. It was a reasonable question, given that he'd just been reading from his novel, "How The Dead Live."

Self pondered, then said he was neither. He was a "meliorist" instead.

"I believe," he said — and I'm paraphrasing here because, while I was there, I did not take notes — "that the world can be improved by great effort."

Twenty-odd years later and I'm reading "Seven Types of Atheism" by the philosopher John Gray. And I've realized that I may not be a meliorist after all. I still believe the human animal's existence (and the animal animal's as well) can be improved, and that we can progress if we invest a little effort. Or a little more.

Filmmaker Woody Allen stands in front of advertising for Amazon Studios (picture-alliance/AP/E. Agostini)

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But what I've learned is that progress means different things to different people. Is progress spiritual, ethical, mechanical, technical? And is any of that (being better) the sole reason for life?

Is this progress?

Progress needn't be humanity's greatest goal. Certainly not technical progress, or even medical progress. We could strive for something far more essential to life and our communal way of life on Earth. Or our goal could be nothing at all.

Ask yourself whether the notion of living longer — or living forever, with our brains uploaded to the great cloud in the sky — can be an end in and of itself.

Look around you. We're all busy creating legacies — both digital and analog ones. There is a real desire among some people and groups to live longer. And live on.

So, this new research out of Boston University's School of Medicine, suggesting that optimists live longer, ought to strike a positive chord with many people around the world.

The researchers monitored the progress of 1,429 men and 69,744 women over three decades, adjusting for various self-induced and environmental health factors. They found that optimists had a 50 percent higher chance than pessimists of living to the age of 85.

Their findings also suggest there are simple tools we can all employ to be more optimistic about life and, as a result, live longer.

But it also shoves a wedge between optimists and pessimists.

Ultimately, we like to pity pessimists. Look down upon them. We tell them to pull up their socks, hold their heads high, puff their chest and keep marching onwards and upwards. It's as if by doing so, pessimists will achieve a higher status, perhaps something "closer to godliness."

But is that truly so?

Is optimism the only way to live?

A sad man and woman, a couple, lie together in bed (picture-alliance)

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Sweat the small stuff

I often think I'd live a happier life if I stopped worrying about my myriad of ethical concerns, whether I've done right by other people, or even done right by myself.

Or whether I could try harder, and whether I need to spend a little more time looking back to work out why and how I went wrong — in the hope of doing better next time.

A kind American journalist patted me gently on the shoulder recently and said, "I think you're over-thinking things a bit."

"Yeah?" I replied, with a smile, "You think?"

He was right, of course. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I rely on a sense of my being hyper-aware — hyper-aware of all the things I don't know.

Optimists, by contrast, couldn't care less. They are basically stupid. Like the cliché "ignorance is bliss." And I don't mean that to be rude. Stupidity can be an advantage.

It just depends on what you want to achieve in life and how you want to live it.

So much free will must be. And I can see how optimists are happier, less stressed, and therefore likelier to live longer than me.

Optimists fall down, they bounce back. No questions asked.

Pessimists fall down, they say WTF! Just my luck.

Football player Bastian Schweinsteiger after a Champions League Final defeat to FC Chelsea, sits on the pitch, head in hands - FC Bayern München (picture alliance/dpa/sampics/S. Matzke)

Hey, chin high! Puff your chest! Researchers say: If you fall, get up, brush yourself down, move on

A sense of dread

That being said, I feel a pervasive sense of dread that the scientists at Boston University are running a dangerous assumption that pessimists want to live longer.

No joke.

Maybe — just maybe — pessimism is not some psychological malfunction, but an intended, realistic worldview that takes the bad with the good... rather than the other way around.

So if I die young, so what? That was my innings. And out.

By the same token, I wouldn’t want to live my entire life blissfully unaware of the fragility of our existence, death, and the ways in which my behavior affects other people, or how theirs affects me. All other roads lead to a "see no evil, hear no evil" life of willful ignorance. 

And "speak not evil"? Hmmm. I don't know.

Just look at the news.

A man in an ambulance in the USA after an apparent opioid overdose (Reuters/B. Snyder)

Some news is just too bad, you can only be down

On Monday, a court in Oklahoma fined the global pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson over $572 million (515 million Euro) for — among other things —  embarking on "a major campaign in which they used branded and unbranded marketing to disseminate the messages that pain was being undertreated and 'there was a low risk of abuse and a low danger' of prescribing opioids to treat chronic, non-malignant pain and overstating the efficacy of opioids as a class of drug."

The court's ruling falls under Oklahoma's Nuisance Law. If you can believe that.

When the fine was announced, Johnson & Johnson's share price rose. Shareholders had expected a far worse outcome.

The pessimistic investors got lucky. They got happy. And began recouping the fine in minutes.

Given the number of deaths in the US currently attributed to opioid addiction, and the fact that the stock market reacted positively after a company was fined for breaching a law — an act, which following the court ruling, either indirectly or directly caused people to die — how could you not be pessimistic?

That's your half glass of poison right there.

Postscript: I have twice tinkered with this article since its original publication in an attempt to improve the integrity of some of the statements. It is with some regret that I acknowledge I am still less than one hundred percent happy with the text. I live in... hope. 

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