Optimism, Pessimism, and Hanukkah


The celebration of Hanukkah actually anticipates the ongoing debate on pessimism and longevity.  Here is why.


Up to now, traditional wisdom held that the benefits of optimism included general wellbeing, better health, and longer life.  There was indeed a power to positive thinking.  Dr. Suzanna Segertstrom articulated this point of view in her 2006 book entitled Breaking Murphy’s Law.  But according to a study published in 2013 issue of the Journal of Psychology and Aging, older people with pessimistic views of the future were more likely to live longer and healthier lives that those with an optimistic outlook.  Researchers relied on a survey of about 11,000 Germans in which looking at respondents age 65 or older they discovered that the likelihood of maintaining good health increased by 10% for those who were more pessimistic.  Dr. Leslie Martin, co-author of the 2011 book The Longevity Project, came to a similar conclusion based on a long-term study that followed over 1500 people over eight decades.  Subjects who identified as more optimistic as children were the ones who died sooner.

Professor of Psychology Julie Norem and Dr. Dilip Jeste, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience are also among those who call optimism into question into question.  But before abandoning optimism altogether, experts in the filed suggest a balance between optimism and pessimism.  Optimism may be disadvantageous in stressful conditions.  While pessimism aids in better assessing what is actually happening in one’s life and prepares for possible dangers.  On the other hand, pessimism may very well become self-fulfilling and lead to failure and despair.  And optimism is a coping mechanism when faced with stress.

So experts now theorize that optimism and pessimism come in a variety of types.  Dispositional optimism or pessimism relates to holding positive or negative dispositions towards the future.  Explanatory optimism or pessimism relates to how a person explains why bad things happen.  Experts have further posited defensive pessimism as a strategy to manage anxiety and strategic optimism that distracts away from a focus on the negative circumstances experienced. 

To the particularly attentive, the Hanukkah story fits into this scholarly narrative.  When that anonymous priest originally hid the small jar of oil that was later discovered when the Temple was restored and rededicated, he was acting with dispositional and strategic optimism, that is, he presumed that the war would be won, Temple service would resume, and pure olive oil would be needed.  This attitude, if we extrapolate nationally, allowed the Hasmoneans to endure depredations and ultimately achieve victory.  While later rabbinic Judaism seemed to latch on to explanatory pessimism (our sins are the reason for our sad situation) the Maccabees did not. 

 Faced with many challenges today, a measure of defensive pessimism is in order – and for good reason: declining birth rate, assimilation, intermarriage, rising anti-Semitism, widespread Judaic ignorance, the high cost of living Jewishly.  At the same time, however, it is crucial that we apply dispositional optimism – not simply to extend our lives but to reflect our confidence in the future of the Jewish people, a future that was anticipated by that anonymous priest.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rabbi Allen on Twitter