Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was looking over a book called “The Optimism Bias” by Tali Sharot. Some time ago Time Magazine ran an article summarizing the book:
“Those rose-colored glasses? We may be born with them. Why our brains tilt toward the positive…in spite of all the negative.”
It outlines how, based upon so many negative life experiences, we should collectively be much more pessimistic about events and their expected outcomes than we are, yet we remain much more positive that we should be based on reality.
Although hope and optimism are healthy for us, they are often counterintuitive. This book postulates that positive thinking is hard-wired into our brains. Optimism was naturally selected during our evolutionary process because without the anticipation of a future reward man would have giving everything up.
Even the knowledge of our mortality should lead us to a “dead end,” to despair, leading our survival activities to stop because, after all, why is it worth it?
They use evidence from MRI scanners showing activity in certain sections of the brain which might indicate those areas are responsible for our positive thoughts and keep us thinking optimistically and happily when we otherwise logically wouldn’t.
Personally, this book, though fascinating, did not make me happy at all. I personally am a very optimistic person but would be greatly deflated to learn that all my optimism is simply a chemical reaction in a deep section of my brain.
Does Judaism have anything to say about this?
Though I am intrigued by the suggestion made by this book, I felt much as you did from this theory; to think that my optimism or anyone else’s is simply the result of hard-wiring is not very optimistic!
I find it very disempowering to think that our optimism is not the result of a conscious effort to be that way, and those who are depressed or negative are so simply because of some malady or hormone dysfunction. Judaism has a lot to say about this, and although we don’t have ample space to do service to this topic, I’m optimistic we can touch upon it!
According to Jewish thought, optimism vs. pessimism are part of the larger body of actions and thoughts regarding which we exercise free choice. The concept of free choice applies to that which we are obligated to do or not do, i.e. mitzvos. Which mitzvah would obligate one to be optimistic?
The answer is, the mitzvah of “bitachon,” or “trust” in the Al-mighty. The concept of trust is predicated upon the core Jewish belief in God’s unlimited power, giving Him the ability to affect the results of any given situation. Hence the Talmudic statement, “Even if a sharp sword is raised above your head, do not give up hope for Divine intervention.”
The notion of bitachon is further based upon the Jewish understanding that God is all-knowing, fully cognizant of all our needs, down to the most precise detail. Furthermore, He loves us all more than anyone else and, although He’s busy with many others, never takes His eye off of any of us for a moment.
All this teaches us that whatever happens to us is, ultimately, for the good. If the results of any given situation are not to my liking, I can still rejoice in that outcome because I know it is truly the best thing for me, whether I perceive this or not.
To live this way brings about serenity — you’re not nervous and worried what will happen — and brings about a life of optimism and joy. Things are truly good!
This realization is, in fact, “hard-wired” into our souls, which deep down contain a spark of Godliness and know this well. It is our choice whether or not to tap into that wellspring of knowledge within ourselves and live with optimism and serenity, or to live solely with the realities of the physical world, leaving God out of the picture, and allowing pessimism to take over. I, personally, would recommend the former; let’s be optimistic and happy.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel.
Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.