No man is happy without a delusion of some kind. Delusions are as necessary to our happiness as realities. Christian Nestell Bovee
Do you think you are a good person? Better than most perhaps? What about smart or intelligent? Or better at your job than most of your co-workers?
If so, you are not alone. In fact, you are part of the pack. According to studies, 94% of US professors rate themselves better than their colleagues, 80% of drivers regard themselves above average—which is not even statistically possible! Further—only 1% (!) of Australian workers rate their job performance as below average. People even assess themselves as better than others in predicting the outcome of a coin toss!
Isn’t this rather amazing?
Maybe so—to you and me. But it’s not overly surprising to psychologists. Most people don’t have accurate perceptions of themselves, it’s been discovered. Instead—we tend to see ourselves in a (substantially) more positive light that what the reality is.
It’s a well-known bias, known as positive illusions—the inclination to view ourselves in the best possible light.
Interestingly enough, up until the late 1970s, optimism was regarded as “a psychological deficit, a sign of immaturity or weakness of character.” It wasn’t until 1988 when two professors of psychology published a paper in which they challenged this notion, arguing that seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses is good and even needed for our physical and mental well-being.
Further studies have uncovered that favorable self-views are linked to additional benefits—such as higher motivation, greater persistence, more effective performance and a higher success rate. Believing that we are better than others can become a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Plus, “knowing” that things will work out in our favour can shield us from stress during downtimes.
And sometimes, trusting a positive outcome in the face of uncontrollable risks is all we have left to keep us going and fighting. For example, psychological research shows that cancer survivors often report a higher quality of life than people who have never had cancer at all.
That is, positive illusion-ing helps people to successfully get through major stressful events or traumas, such as life-threatening illnesses or serious accidents.
However, a caution is warranted.
Unrealistically high self-opinions have been linked to egocentrism and narcissism—the latter of which is a personality disorder. But, as research tells us, low to moderate doses of rosy self-views can predict a healthy sense of self-esteem. One study has found that a large number of people (43.9% to be exact) who held highly positive self-illusions also had high-self-esteem.
It makes sense if you get to think about it. Self-esteem is about feeling good being ourselves. Positive self-opinions achieve exactly this—they make us see ourselves in a bit of a glorified light—enough, to keep our hopes, motivation and self-worth in a good place.
To peel the onion a bit further on this—another famous psychologist— Prof. Roy Baumeister— has proposed a term, called “an optimal margin of illusion.” There is an ideal level of distortion of reality, he claims, that we need to maintain for a healthy psychological functioning. Distorting less than the optimal level may be depressing as it’s linked to too realistic outlook, but overdoing it can push us to take on challenges way beyond our capabilities and set ourselves to fail, due to an inflated ego.
This is where it becomes tricky. There is a Goldilocks level of self-delusions linked to a better mental well-being. However, telling ourselves that everything will be fine or aiming way too high may be a dangerous line to walk—we may either not action appropriately trusting things will somehow magically work out, or—as I mentioned—get burned, believing in our superiority.
Alternatively, studies do confirm that people who convinced themselves that they did well, regardless of reality, felt and fared better after completing a task. This means that self-delusions not only make us feel good about ourselves but can give us the motivational boost to actually perform better.
As I said, some delicate grounds.
The idea that unfounded self-glorification is beneficial, naturally, isn’t without opposition. It’s harmful in the long-term, the nay-sayers claim—it can lead to poor social skills, can make people “hostile, condescending, and unable to delay gratification.” Self-enhancers may appear to be charming and assured folks at first glance, but after the initial aura is dispelled, they do come across as defensive and tending to brag. Self-delusions are also a close ally to self-denial, which can prevent us from improving ourselves.
But it’s all nuanced, of course. Studies do show that people who feel positive about themselves and their health live up to 20 years longer.
. . .
So, in the end, what the research tells us is that you can keep wearing your rose-coloured glasses, but with—let’s call it—a grounded optimism. Despite the risks of tipping into a high-ego territory, having favorable self-views is still better than the alternative.
Perhaps we all need a dose of positive self-delusions after all—just enough to be “crazy” to dream big dreams and have the courage to go after them.
To take a more philosophical view on this— what is reality really? –“Merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one,” Albert Einstein told us years ago.
Then, who’s to say that your reality is more real or truer than mine?
*This piece was posted on ThriveGlobal in August 2018.