The Optimism Bias of Longing

“I imagine a line, a white line, painted on the sand and on the ocean, from me to you.”
~Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated

A friend asked me yesterday what major theme I explore most in my fiction. After some discussion, we agreed that it was probably longing—for passionate and profound love, for meaningful human connection—but I thought about it all day. Why longing? Why would I not instead write about the loves and connections that have finally been attained? What about the pursuit of perceived happiness is more interesting than the happiness itself? And not just to me; consider the role longing plays in Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, or the poetry by W.B. Yeats or Rainer Maria Rilke to name just a few examples.

According to my friend Dave, humans have the unique ability to construct future scenarios in our minds. “If-then” scenarios fire along our frontal cortex synapses, allowing us to flexibly forecast possible outcomes. This sort of cognitive time travel (as Dr. Tali Sharot calls it in her book The Optimism Bias) is essential for our survival. It’s what allows us to plan for the future, to invest money in the stock market, to make strides against the effects of global warming, to work for months or years on a manuscript with the goal of publication, to have children. Believing that the future will be appreciably better than the past and present (if I could just get that job, move to that neighborhood, win the heart and commitment of that lover) is what enables us to endure pain and suffering along the way to the perceived outcome. In fact, that tension and longing seems to redouble the anticipation of happiness, becoming a sort of feedback loop that gets bigger as we go along. As Dr. Sharot told me, “An unconsummated romance is appealing because it allows us to imagine what that relationship would be like. In contrast to consummated relationships, there is no annoying reality to tint our vision. Our mind can go wild, and it often does, with rosy images of what it would be like to have that person. We believe those images to be a possibility and do not acknowledge that if we did in fact enter a relationship with the object of our desire reality will intervene.”

“Happy thou art not, for what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get, and what thou hast, forget’st.” ~William Shakespeare

But what’s interesting about our ability to imagine alternate realities is our bias toward optimism: we tend to vastly overestimate the positivity of what lies ahead and vastly underestimate the negativity. But why? Turns out our neurons are great at encoding desirable information about the future, but surprisingly bad at incorporating the unexpectedly undesirable. That’s why we can identify with an against-all-odds success story and imagine that our next lottery ticket, too, will be a winner, but we can know that 50% of marriages end in divorce and yet still look forward to the soft-focus moment of “I do.” It’s what Samuel Johnson referred to as “the triumph of hope over experience.”

Think of the visceral aching Anna Karenina had for the dashing Alexei Vronsky and the mess she was willing to make of things in order to be with him. And think of what happened to her later, after she was spurned by her society and the ennui of daily life with her lover set in. Would she have twisted herself into such a knot for Vronsky if she’d been able to predict that she’d ultimately throw herself under a train and die?

Oh but we can all relate to Anna, that sumptuous yearning, that consuming desire. And if we can’t, by some limitations of morality or circumstances or tolerance, fling ourselves into the arms of would-be soul mates in reality, we can at least experience it vicariously through the imagined lives of characters by reading—or writing—about it.