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Animals are ‘adaptable optimists’, and could teach us how to better deal with life's challenges

Do you see the glass as half-empty or half-full? Are you a risk-taker or risk-averse? We all have optimistic and pessimistic tendencies (called ‘judgement bias’), and exciting new research is showing that animals have these too. But here's the really interesting finding: animals are more flexible, changing from one outlook to the other more frequently than we do.  


As humans, we tend to think of ourselves as either an optimist or pessimist. Society’s take on this is that there are benefits to both outlooks, but that no-one should be too optimistic or too pessimistic… somewhere in the middle is best. Hope for the best and expect the worst, although, I’m not sure how we’re meant to achieve that in practice.


However, optimistic and pessimistic biases are in place to help us respond to our environment, and therefore it may be counter-productive to be rigid in our level of optimism, since our surroundings are always changing.


I’ll explain this further: if we’re in a poor environment with few opportunities, society tells us to stay optimistic. For example, cancer patients are often told that they must just stay positive. At the same time, if we find ourselves in a good environment we easily find ways to be negative about it- convincing ourselves that the grass is always greener.


I propose that we look to the animal kingdom for guidance. Animals are more flexible in their outlook, and could be described as ‘adaptable optimists’. They alternate their optimistic and pessimistic biases to allow them to adapt best to their changing surroundings. When they are in a good environment, they will judge optimistically, and when they are moved into poorer surroundings, they will adapt and become more pessimistic.


I tested this with the dolphins, and the results were fascinating. We found that the most optimistic dolphins were those that had the better social bonds in the group- measured by their time spent swimming in synchrony together (read the research here). Like with humans, social relationships seem to be a key factor in promoting positive emotions in dolphins.


In both humans and animals, being optimistic is strongly linked to being happy. But we all have to deal with life’s challenges at some point in our lives, and being more of an “adaptable optimist” will allow us to tackle them in a more honest and effective way, and guide us back towards happiness. We need to allow ourselves to feel pessimistic sometimes: it is simply our brain and body trying to protect us from the environment we’re in.


I want to wrap up this idea by talking about ‘zoognosis’, a term coined by the world-class marine mammal vet Dr Claire Simeone describing the knowledge transfer between humans and animals. She says that instead of only looking at what we can learn about animals, we should also be asking what we can learn from them. What can animals teach us?


Their adaptable optimism is a great example. For my part, they’ve taught me personally that being less rigid in our day-to-day optimistic or pessimistic outlooks may help us thrive and be happier.



This post is adapted from Isabella’s TEDx talk entitled “Animals can teach us how to be happier: by being adaptable optimists”. More details at:


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