The first order of business is to announce that the comment section has been fixed (thanks, Collin). Now our comments will be in a pleasant, standard paragraph format. Sorry if you had trouble posting your comments earlier.

Second order of business: after reading this post, feel free to cast your vote for whether you would like the next post to be of a more personal nature (such as my “memories” post) or if you would like another more informative post riddled with stress-related info.

AND NOW….let’s get down to this evening’s post:

I used to think that the closer my thoughts were in alignment with objective reality, then the healthier and more fulfilled that would make me. Some doubt was cast on that once I studied the work of Shelley Taylor a little bit.

Taylor’s theory of cognitive adaptation suggests how humans adapt after a stressful life event. Her theory includes three main themes: a search for meaning (to understand why the event took place and assessment of one’s life post-event), an attempt to re-gain control (mastery), and self-enhancement after the event, in order to build one’s self esteem. These themes are interconnected. Taylor introduces the concept that humans develop and maintain illusions in order to resolve these three themes.

Meaning and mastery can be integrated. We seek to understand the meaning of an event not merely to know why it happened but also to discover the implications for our life now.  Mastery revolves around themes of personal control. Our efforts to control life in response to stress can be on a behavioral level or strictly mental (i.e., doing something vs. altering our perspective). The causes that we attribute to an event are may be based on illusion because often they are not known; these illusions can still benefit the victim by creating a sense of control and self efficacy.

According to Taylor & Brown, holding certain illusions can promote happiness and health.

Here are three healthy illusions that she suggests are adaptive.

unrealistically positive views of the self: The majority of well-adjusted people think they are above average. This is not possible. I took elementary statistics last semester, and as it turns out, there is this whole bell-curve situation and “average” falls right smack dab in the middle where the majority of people reside. SO–the majority of people thinking that they are all above average is indicative of illusion. Another measure in the study was that people were observed performing certain tasks and then asked to rate how well they did them. The self-report that people gave about their performance was higher than the report of the people who had observed them.

exaggerated perceptions of personal control: Many happy and healthy people inferred that they had control over situations that were determined by chance. People believe they produced desired outcome.

unrealistic optimism: Many happy and healthy people believe that the present is better than the past and the future will be even better. People believe the future will be even better for them than for others. They believe that the future will correspond to what they want.

Conversely, accurate self-knowledge is not indicative of mental health. Depressed people in the study had more balanced and realistic perceptions of self and future. Strange, huh?

These healthy illusions mentioned here have been shown to lead to an increased:

ability to care for others: positive illusions are associated with social bonding–indirectly, through creating a positive mood.

capacity for creative and productive work: positive illusions facilitate creative functioning; they enhance motivation, persistence, and performance.

By this definition, people with the above illusions are adaptive and healthy. And then one wonders if these illusions do become a reality for those individuals who keep believing. I think that if you set your mind and attitudes toward optimism and hope then your life will be affected by that in a positive way. Plus, it certainly does make the journey more enjoyable along the way.

Of course, it is important to make sure that your hopeful illusions are not creating negative outcomes for yourself or others. Believing that things will work out and get better in some situations (i.e., abusive or toxic relationships) is not going to help anyone. Also, holding illusions that insulate an individual with real problems from seeking help or correcting his or her deviant behavior isn’t good, either, no matter how happy that individual feels while engaging in destructive behaviors.

So, maybe the gauge for the illusions you allow yourself to hold or or not should be the outcomes they produce in your life and the life of others?

Taylor, S.E. (1983). Adjustment to threatening events: a theory of cognitive adaptation. American Psychologist. 38:1161-1173

Taylor, S.E., and Brown, J.D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: a social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin. 103(2):179-192.

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