Helen Fisher, Biological Anthropologist and Chief Scientific Advisor for Chemistry.com, contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Prayers, betting parlors, doctor's appointments, monuments, diets, holidays, college degrees, lottery tickets, Valentine’s Day flowers, wedding rings: what do these things have in common? Each offers hope. The Statue of Liberty is a beacon of hope. Las Vegas sells hope. Immigrants risk their lives and leave their homelands because they hope. At Christmas, Passover and Ramadan, we hope. At the lift-off of a spacecraft, we hope. With breakthroughs in science, we hope. We buy homes, support charities, and give gifts because we hope. The world is filled with ceremonies, festivals, shrines, ideas, customs, religions, community projects, friendships and jobs that offer hope.
Why are we such optimists; why do we hope? Perhaps because we humans have evolved big brains, capable of seeing our defects, remembering our mistakes, foreseeing our death, and envisioning the opportunities of the future. What would we do without the ability to overlook the negative and accentuate the positive? Life through rose-colored glasses keeps us healthy, energized and focused on reaching our special goals. With hope, our ancestors struggled forward; with hope, they achieved; with hope, they survived—and passed along to you and me the neural circuits for optimism, which I recently mentioned as part of an ongoing series from Chemistry.com focused on the bright side of dating in 2013.
Isn't it odd that so many Americans—who share a country with more wealth, better land, cleaner air and water, more access to education, more personal freedoms, greater peace, and more economic opportunities than just about any nation on earth—are depressed? To counter this, I suggest it's time we exercise our natural optimism—and get happy.
Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, divides happiness into three basic forms: Those who seek a "Pleasant Life" focus on increasing the duration and intensity of their positive emotions; those who wish to have an "Engaged Life" find their greatest strengths and refocus their energy to use these aptitudes as much as possible in love, work, parenting and play; and those seeking a 'Meaningful Life' find and use their greatest talents to serve a higher purpose, something greater than themselves. Optimism, Seligman maintains, is essential for the 'Meaningful Life'. Only with hope can we pursue goals that are larger than ourselves.
We are built to hope. And scientists, priests, poets and philosophers have told us how to amplify our optimism. So go forth. Adopt some of the suggestions offered, and shoot for the stars: a pleasant, engaged and meaningful life.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.