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The Optimistic Brain

 “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” ~ Oscar Wilde.

Ah, January. I am still reeling from the herculean effort to make the proverbial lemonade out of the lemon of a year we just had, but so many people are bursting with enthusiasm for the new resolutions they have made (again!) and will keep (this time for sure!). It makes me wonder how we get here over and over, convinced that this will be the year when we exercise, eat better, lose weight, become kinder, win the lottery, clear the clutter, quit sugar, fix government, and possibly save the world. Behavioral psychologists tell us this attitude is not delusional, but optimistic.

Optimism can be defined as a mindset characterized by hope and confidence that things will turn out well. However, it goes beyond seeing the bright side of a situation or expecting good things. Optimists believe they have the skill and ability to make good things happen. They see hardships as temporary learning experiences. Because they don't view setbacks as personal failings, optimists are able to bounce back from disappointments. Hence optimism builds resilience and allows us to keep trying to reach our goals rather than give up. Optimism is not about only seeing everything as rosy, a la Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss. Optimists don't ignore problems or pretend life is perfect. They acknowledge the dark and hard things, but choose to be hopeful and focus on what they might do to make things better. Note that it takes an optimistic mindset and action to change things, not just the magical power of positive thinking touted by pop psychology.

It is difficult to find consensus among scientists on the locus of optimism in the brain and the mechanisms that give rise to it. Part of the difficulty in studying optimism or pessimism is that these are complex, layered and hard to define phenomena which vary with different contexts and with moods like anxiety and depression. fMRI studies of optimism show involvement of the amygdala which is associated with emotional reactions like fear and uncertainty, and a part of the frontal lobe called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex which is involved in imagining the future and may work to downplay negative emotions. The pleasure center, nucleus accumbens, is also implicated in some studies, as one imagines future rewards. And, electrical brain activity is increased in the left frontal lobe during optimistic behavior and decision making. Some psychologists view optimistic attitudes as a manifestation of basic and ancient drives to pursue reward and to avoid danger. Thus it is not surprising that ancient brain structures which we share with other animals are activated, along with higher centers of the human brain (frontal lobes).

Animal studies find that optimism is active in species as varied as lab rats, squirrels, crows, bison and dolphins. Overall, more optimistic animals show higher curiosity, persistence and willingness to explore, and it is postulated they may have a survival advantage in terms of finding new food sources or mates in challenging times. In humans also, an optimistic attitude makes people more adaptable to changing circumstances and resistant to stress; it protects against depression - even in those with other risk factors for it; and correlates with better health, longevity, happiness and success. So, if optimism is that good for us, shouldn’t we always be as optimistic as possible?

Well, it turns out humans are quite prone to being overly optimistic. We routinely overestimate our prospects for success and a happily ever-after, expect our offspring to be exceptional, and anticipate living healthier and longer than our peers. Unfortunately, this can lead to problems like failing to prepare for or respond to challenges, making rash decisions, and taking unnecessary risks. Interestingly, when tired, sleep-deprived or under influence of substances or alcohol, we become yet more overoptimistic – something well known to, and exploited by casinos!

So, how can we be optimistic while avoiding going overboard? It helps to become watchful for over optimism when deciding how to respond to situations. Some degree of our optimism is genetically determined but the rest has to do with experience and culture, and we can learn to be realistically optimistic. Psychologists offer some advice on this. The first step is to notice how we react to things and acknowledge why that may be the case. Try to see events clearly without bias towards the positives or the negatives, and accept what we cannot control. Practicing mindfulness helps with seeing things clearly as they are in the moment. Try consciously to respond in positive ways. Keep company with those who have a hopeful approach to life. When it comes to the state of the world, stay informed but avoid doom scrolling and seek out positive news. And remember, “That is one good thing about this world...there are always sure to be more springs.” ~ L.M. Montgomery.


Post by: Nadia Fike

Read more: 1. Erthal, F. et al. Unveiling the neural underpinnings of optimism: a systematic review. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience (2021) 21:895–916.  ( 2. Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism:  how to change your mind and your life. 1st Vintage Books ed., Vintage Books. 3. Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias: A tour of the irrationally positive brain. Pantheon/Random House.


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