Optimism and Pessimism

September 6, 2012

3 min read


Time Magazine recently ran an article based on the book "The Optimism Bias." The subtitle, which sums up the article, read "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, 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 article 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 to 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 article, though fascinating, did not make me happy at all. I 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?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

I looked at the article that you mention and, though intrigued by the suggestion, 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 is simply because of some malady or hormone dysfunction.

According to Jewish thought, optimism and pessimism are included in the larger body of actions and thoughts about which we can and need to exercise Free Choice. In general the concept of free choice applies to things we are obligated to do, i.e. mitzvot, and deeds or thoughts which we are proscribed from performing, i.e. misdeeds. Which mitzvah would obligate one to be optimistic and proscribe us from being pessimistic?

The answer is the mitzvah of bitachon, or "trust" in the Almighty. 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, and is 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 result of any given situation is not to my liking, I can still rejoice in that outcome because I know it is truly the best thing for me, whether I ever find out why so, 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.

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 we tap into that wellspring of knowledge within ourselves and live with optimism and serenity, or to heap layers of darkness upon our souls and live solely with the realities of the physical world; leaving God out of the picture, and allow pessimism to take over!

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