Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Why Do We Keep Trying So Earnestly to Self-Improve?

We seem predisposed not to give in.

A changing of the calendar is a time of renewal—one year in the book, another dangling the promise of our better selves.

Many of us see things looking up for the year ahead. The new AP Times Square New Year’s Eve poll found that Americans were happy to say goodbye to 2013, but almost half think their personal fortunes will improve in 2014. Only 14 percent see the coming year as a personal downer.

It appears that we are much less optimistic about what we see than we are about what we experience. A 2013 Gallup Politics poll, for example, found that Americans began the year fairly pessimistic about the prospects for the economy and international peace. But when it came to ourselves and our families, things looked much better. A solid 69 percent saw good things ahead.

We’re so optimistic about our personal futures, we’re willing to spend a lot of money to improve them.

Heading into the new year, there is a $10.3 billion industry dedicated to making us happier, skinnier, prettier, wealthier and better able to cope with the insults to the psyche dealt by mounting evidence that many certainties—the assumption that our government might have road-tested the system supporting its signature legislation comes to mind—are not that certain after all.

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While critics might attack the self-help industry as peddlers of emotional trinkets, I see something else. It’s a belief that, despite all the evidence that the game is rigged, anybody can still win. Blind optimism? Maybe. But it’s optimism just the same. And where there is a belief that things can be different, there is always that faint and flickering possibility that just maybe they will.

The dark side of optimism is vulnerability.

Hearing a persistent squeal from the engine, we turn up the radio. Rather than finding our way to the source, we work around it with the hope that all will be well if we think positively, dream big, follow our heart and say no to negativity—the four horsemen of simple solutions. They have made many practitioners of improvement wealthy. It’s said: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time. And that’s usually good enough. For those who have cracked that code, dreams really do come true.

The bright side of optimism is hope.

There could be no self-help industry unless there was a mass-market belief that somewhere within us there are the ingredients of the life we want. As noted philosopher Miley Cyrus recently said: “You can’t live a positive life with a negative mind.” Her proven ability to make a whole lot of money with less than a whole lot of talent says she might be on to something.

For the great mass of people who will never ride naked on a wrecking ball, where does the hopeful positivity come from? Why do we keep trying so earnestly to self-improve?

Maybe it’s the phenomenon of the “optimism bias.”

It’s the reason we over-estimate the possibilities of good things coming our way; and underestimate the possibility that things will come crashing down around our heads. Pin it on the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and the right amygdala. Neuroscientist Dr. Tali Sharot and colleagues from New York University combined an optimism questionnaire with MRI scans to show that subjects rated happy upcoming events more positively than actual past happy events. If the future events were first-hand, they were positive. Viewed as an outsider, they were negative.

Perhaps that is the reason we still get married when 50 percent of marriages fail, and why we buy lottery tickets, don’t get annual checkups or use sunscreen. It might be the reason that a third mortgage seemed smart because house prices never go down. It could be the reason we have a new list of resolutions, knowing we’ve failed to achieve the last 20.

Maybe to be less than optimistic is to admit defeat. We seem predisposed not to give in.  As Churchill put it: “… I am an optimist—it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.”

The Dalai Lama has a simple take: optimism “feels better.”

Whatever the reason, I think 2014 is going to be a very good year.


Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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