There have been a large number of comparitive studies of pessimistic and optimistic people. Optimistics, it would appear, live around ten years longer on average than pessimists. This seems to have a ring of truth about it, since pessimists tend to be more prone to stress and related ailments, and optimists much more able to cope with setbacks and just get on in life.
One of the strange things is that pessimists have been shown to have a more realistic view of the real World than their more upbeat counterparts. The optmists are literally deluding themselves into thinking the World is working in their favour more than it really is. They dismiss problems as minor temporary setbacks, and claim all the glory when things go well. They are oblivious to their shortcomings, and revel in their strengths.
After recently reading a great deal about religion and religious behaviour, it has occured to me that religious believers are practicing a form of optimism. They thereby gain from the health benefits optimism bestows on them. This optimism has these basic flavours :
- God is with you all the time, guiding you, helping you, loving you.
- When things go well, God has blessed you. When things go wrong, it is God’s way – he is testing you.
- When you turn your life to God, you are saved and go to Heaven. To Hell with those lesser people who don’t.
- You do not have to justify the rationale of your religion – belief alone is enough to paper over any crack.
- You join a big club that backs you up all the way.
So, it would seem, having strong religious faith, as a form of optimism, is healthy. And much research does indeed verify this. The sense of meaning of life that religion provides, is coupled with a mindset that allows you to take all in your stride. Many Indians, a highly religious race, for example, drive with no care and attention at all. They simply believe that if it is their day to die in a horrific crash they will. But if not, they are immune to any consequences of their reckless motoring skills.
Curiously enough, as I grow stronger in my atheist belief, I feel a form of optimism, a sense of immunity. I feel that I can parallel the ability of believers to counter any attack on their religion, by being more able as time passes to counter any attack on my atheism.
But I will actually make a concerted effort not to convert religious people to Atheism for the simple reason that I do not want them to lose the health benefits of the optimistic outlook their religion gives them.
This concept of the delusional nature of optimists is addressed in a very interesting book called “A mind of it’s own” by Cordelia Fine. It assimilates much recent research into the mind that actually demonstrates that all of us, even pessimists, are poorly tuned into how the World really is. We are all optimists of a fashion. Our minds, it seems, frequently deceive and delude us. For example, the majority of drivers, if asked, believe that they are better than average drivers, when statistically speaking, only 50% can be.
Much of our decision making is performed behind the scenes, in our subconscious. We, our conscious minds, are drip fed the bare minimum to allow us to get on, and to allow our conscious minds to do their slow ponderings. Often, our subconscious will determine that there is something that we need to be concerned about, so will put us into an appropriate mood. We will sooner or later sense the mood, but will often not be aware of why. We will even make up reasons for our mood, the subconscious failing to give us the reason for its action. Our sibconscious regularly deceives and deludes us.
So, if we are delusional by default, if our perception of and operation in the World is one mostly governed by our subconscious, maybe Richard Dawkins’ criticism in “The God Delusion” of the failure of religious people to face the truth is unwise. He states his preference for the truth, yet his mind rarely exposes him to the truth anyway. His mind does this for the very good reason that a deluded, optimistic, truth avoiding outlook on life is a healthier one.