Things are tough out there. Sometimes it becomes very frustrating and scary to be
inundated with all of the world news each day that is so sad, foreboding and terrifying.
Fortunately, most of us are naturally wired to be optimistic; to be able to take our focus
off of the negativity and horror that can occur and to predict or look forward to positive
things happening. As Tali Sharot reports in Time Magazine’s “The Science of Optimism”
(June 6, 2011), “…in the absence of a neural mechanism that generates unrealistic optimism,
it is possible all humans would be mildly depressed.” In other words, we are hard-wired to
be able to “shake off” the bad and stay focused on good things happening. An example of this
is a funny statistic the article references: 93% of people surveyed regarding their driving
ability believed they were in the top 50th percentile for driving ability. Why is this funny?
Well, you do the math. Another interesting finding was that, although in reality the chance
of a human being living to be 100 years old is .02%, 10% of Americans expected to live to be 100.
Part of what may lead to the development of depression is that the “optimism circuit” in the brain
is not working as well. Sharot reports that “people with severe depression tend to be
pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being.” She goes on to
report that people with “mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events.
They see the world as it is.” This suggests that a way to help a depressed person feel better, especially
a more mildly depressed person, is to help him or her rewire the optimism track.
Here is an example of how this may work:
On Wednesday, June 27 2011, I came into my office in the monring and, as always,
I began the day reviewing and answering phone messages and emails. Right before
I start seeing patients, I check the home page of MSN to see if there are any huge
breaking news stories. On this particular day, I spotted an article titled,
“Girl’s Clean Water Wish Takes Off After Her Death.” This headline caught my
attention and I read the story.
There was an 8 year old girl in Bellevue, Washington named Reachel Beckwith.
Just before her 9th birthday, in June of this year, she posted a note on charity:water,
a non-profit website dedicated to raising money to bring clean drinking water to
those in need around the world. She asked that instead of any gifts, she wanted people
to donate. Her goal was to raise $300 for the cause.
One week before her birthday she had raised $220. The article goes on to report that Rachel was
tragically killed in a car accident July 19th. The story was locally publicized and quickly gained national
attention. Rachel’s words on the charity:water website were broadly made public:
“On June 12th 2011, I’m turning 9. I found out that millions of people don’t live
to see their 5th birthday. And why? Because they didn’t have access to clean, safe water
so I’m celebrating my birthday like never before. I’m asking from everyone I know to
donate to my campaign instead of gifts for my birthday. Every penny of the money raised
will go directly to fund freshwater projects in developing nations.”
Since then, money has been flowing in for Rachel’s cause. On the day that I discovered this
story, at 9am, her site had raised $371,800. By the time I left work that day, at 4:45pm, the
figure was at $448,663 and rising. Amazingly, most donations were in increments ranging from $9 to $99.
As heartbreaking as Rachel’s death was, the subsequent events were inspirational and made me feel good about people. They helped me to better deal with other headlines such as those about the killings in Norway and the national debt crisis. I was reminded of the good that people can do, especially when banded together. I was reminded of the good things I have in life. I was filled with hope and optimism.
I am not depressed. I understand that a depressed person, especially severely depressed may
not even have the motivation to read that article about Rachel let alone gain the benefits
of spirit that it provides. I also know that talk therapy that focuses on retraining negative
thinking, helping a person challenge negative and irrational thoughts does work
in decreasing and sometimes healing depression. Perhaps what is happening in therapy
is that the optimism circuit is getting rewired, rebooted and put back “online”. Isn’t it interesting,
by the way, how closely dated Rachel’s birthday and that Time magazine article are?
And yes, I donated to Rachel’s amazing campaign. It felt really good.