Today is a Great Day to Catch an Elephant: The Evolutionary Advantage of Optimism

If you’re a hunter-gatherer, as we are, you better get up in the morning and think it is a great day to catch an elephant. 

There is no real evidence that prayer helps an individual survive.  What may help, however, is personal optimism.  I wrote a book in 1979 called Optimism: The Biology of Hope because I was interested in how humans succeed in overestimating the odds in our favor. I concluded that if you’re a hunter-gatherer, as we are, you better get up in the morning and think it is a great day to catch an elephant because if you get up in the morning and you say "I don’t want to catch an elephant today, I’m going back to sleep," well unless you have an elephant in the freezer, which there wasn’t, you’re going to be very hungry by evening. 


So there was I’m sure great selection for optimism in homo sapiens and the same is true in sexual selection.  My favorite statement on this comes not from Darwin, who actually understood the process, but from George Bernard Shaw who said, “Love consists in overestimating the difference between one woman and another.”  And if you don’t make that overestimation, whether it is to a woman or to a man, then you won’t get involved in the whole conniption of getting close to somebody and maybe spending your life with them and maybe having little replicates of yourselves.

So optimism is important, but it is a personal issue.  Whether there is a kind of formal advantage to religion I don’t know except that when we have crisis, 9/11 or whatever, several things happen.  People pray more.  They go to church and furthermore, as we could see especially in New Orleans after Katrina, the churches were there to help well before the government.  Now you could say the government was especially inept, but the fact is that religions are set up for this, so in that sense people who are religious might well be healthier because they help each other more.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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