Why We Think We Are Lucky

Why We Think We Are Lucky

According to Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, people tend to overrate the positive aspects of themselves and their lives. For any given trait, people generally tend to believe they are above average. Whether it is driving, their work ethic, or their cooking skills people have overly positive views. Interestingly, this even goes beyond aspects that are controllable or really even influenced by the individual. Pinker writes, “people also hold the nonsensical belief that they are inherently lucky. Most people think they are more likely than the average person to attain a good first job, to have gifted children, and live to a ripe old age.”
It is one thing to be confident, but Pinker argues that we are outright deluded about ourselves when we compare ourselves to everyone else. This is puzzling because outright delusion doesn’t seem like it should make sense evolutionarily. Pinker writes, “it only begs the question of why our brains should be designed so that only unrealistic assessments make us happy and confident, as opposed to calibrating our contentment against reality.” Being overly confident seems like a strange strategy for our brains since it could lead us astray in a dangerous way. If we are too confident in our driving skills we may take a corner too quickly and end up in a dangerous crash. If our ancestors were too confident in themselves, they may have risked getting too close to an alligator and also ended up in a dangerous crash. Overconfidence has a limit where it should be hard to pass along genetically.
Pinker’s conclusion is that we are social creatures and that we can bluff our way into obtaining more resources, more status, and more allies than we may obtain if we followed a strategy of pure honesty. “It would be better for the species if no one exaggerated,” writes Pinker, “but our brains were not selected for the benefit of the species, and no individual can afford to be the only honest one in a community of self-enhancers.”
Lying, or at least bluffing and exaggerating the truth, helps us in social situations. We strive to present ourselves as stronger, more successful, and more faithful than we truly are so that we win more allies who will help us if we ever need it. These strategies help improve our social status, which may help us find a good partner with whom we can pass our genes along. We delude ourselves so that we can better delude others in this game of social self aggrandizement. We think we are better drivers, smarter, and even luckier than the average person, because the more genuine we can appear in our belief of our positive greatness, the better we can bluff others as well.
Happiness Depends on Narratives

Happiness Depends on Narratives

I try to think rationally about the world around me, and I think most people would say the same. However, I know that what I mostly do is create a narrative of the world, of how people interact, and of what is positive or negative for the world. I sort out things that I observe based on the narratives that help me understand the world. I try to be objective and rational, and I believe those ideas play a role in my overall calculus, but science has demonstrated that it is likely that narratives based on my limited set of experiences and knowledge shape my understanding of the world more than my attempts at objective rationality.
This can be a disappointing conclusion, but it can also mean that we can tap into our narratives to help us find happiness in our lives. It means we can work to develop narratives for ourselves that are more helpful than harmful. Regarding meaning, happiness, and narratives in his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “the scientists who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning reading scriptures, going on a crusade, or building a new cathedral.” In each case mentioned above, for modern individuals and their medieval counterparts, their sense of meaning is tied to a narrative. Harari claims they are all delusional because they are operating and basing their lives on a narrative that isn’t entirely based on reality. They are giving their lives meaning by working toward shared social goals that are in some ways based on myths and hypothesis about what will make people happy and what will therefore be good. None of them is more or less delusional than the other, at least in Harari’s eyes.
Harari continues, “as long as my personal narrative is inline with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.” Science is very objective in ways that religion is not, but the goals and priorities of science are not always objective (a wealthy individual provides a grant to research the rare cancer their mother died from rather than give a grant to research malaria). A soldier fights for a nation, a fictional concept that we bring to life through shared beliefs and narratives. An entrepreneur works for money, within the market, to expand the economy, all concepts that are in some ways based on myth and shared social constructions.
We tie our narratives together with other people and coordinate our actions accordingly to find meaning in our lives. Without shared narratives and coordinated efforts between them we would be isolated individuals without a purpose. This can be depressing and scary, but it can also give us hope. We can work with others and develop narratives together to create lives and roles that will bring us meaning. We don’t have to be stuck with a single narrative and a single role for our life. We can work within social systems and structures to reshape our narratives to find new meaning and new purposes for how we want to live. Our happiness depends on our narratives which we can all shape both individually and collectively.