Opinions about when the pandemic will end are like mouths: everyone has one. Optimists predict a flattening of the curve and a workable vaccine within six months; pessimists forecast that we’ll be flattened by the curve and will never return to our pre-pandemic way of life.
So which is better? To be an optimist and maintain a strong sense of hope and risk future disappointment or a pessimist and be riddled with depression and anxiety about imminent doom and then feel elated when the worst is overcome?
Two economists, David de Meza of the London School of Economics and Chris Dawson of the University of Bath, set out to answer this question. They examined the responses of 1,601 individuals in the British Household Panel Survey to two questions that they repeatedly answered every year between 1991 and 2009: “How do you think you will be financially a year from now?” and (a year later) “Would you say that you are better off, worse off or the same financially than you were a year ago?” De Meza and Dawson then looked at the well-being of these individuals to determine if the optimists or pessimists were happier or more miserable based on whether or not they achieved their financial goals.
Two findings from their study shed light on how we should answer the million-dollar question of the pandemic: When will it end? (With an important caveat: predicting your future financial situation is more under your control than the behavior of a novel virus; optimistic versus pessimistic beliefs related to health outcomes, to my knowledge, have not yet been tested.)
First, the people who accurately predicted their financial situation a year later—the realists—were the happiest a year later. The well-being of both the optimists (those who over-estimated their financial success a year later) and the pessimists (who under-estimated how financially successful they would be after a year) was significantly lower. In other words, it’s better to be a realist and possess the ability to accurately forecast your future than to be an optimist or a pessimist.
No Crystal Ball
OK, so it’s good to be able to predict the future. Yet here’s some realism: most of us can’t. Based on our natural inclinations and dispositions (think the Carter Family singing about “keeping on the sunny side of life” versus the cartoon character—was it Elmer Fudd or Glum from Gulliver’s Travels—saying “It’ll never work”) err on the side of either over- or under-estimating our future prospects—including how soon a non-pandemic future lies in wait for us.
For this reason, it’s the second finding of de Meza and Dawson that is more intriguing and far-reaching: pessimists experienced 37.2 percent more psychological distress than realists while optimists felt 11.8 percent more distress.
In other words, those who are unrealistically pessimistic and live in a state of foreboding about impending doom experience over three times more distress—even when they are pleasantly surprised that it’s not as bad as they thought—than those who are unrealistically optimistic and have their sights on better times that are inflated beyond what actually transpires.
While there can be numerous reasons at play here—such as research that has found that optimists tend to live longer, happier and healthier lives than pessimists—certainly one is that hope is an opiate. Why? It provides a reason to continue.
How Do You Want to Spend Your Time?
Envision the scores of people drinking up so much of a storm in speakeasies (small, crowded bars with little air flow) during Prohibition. In short, people spent untold hours in the perfect environment to transmit a virus, yet stayed healthy (quantities of alcohol consumed notwithstanding). Such thinking can help us stay positive in these challenging times.
About the Author:
Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is a world-renowned leadership educator and coach. He has coached G-20 cabinet ministers and the CEOs and senior leaders of Fortune 500 companies such as Disney, IBM and GE and the world’s largest nonprofits such as CARE and Save the Children. He has taught leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont McKenna College and IESE Business School and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. His new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was just released in March 2020. You can find more articles on his weekly blog The Art of Living Free.