Generally speaking, I consider myself an optimist. I tend to look at the positive in a situation and don’t react too negatively when stressed or disappointed. Although I’m not a Pollyanna—I am certainly aware of the sadness and pain I see in the world—I’m generally happy, and I’m always looking for ways to increase my happiness and wellbeing in life.
That’s why I am fascinated by Elaine Fox’s account of what makes one optimistic or pessimistic and how that is related to brain chemistry, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook. According to Fox, director of the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Essex, UK, optimists are distinguishable from pessimists by their ability to attend to pleasurable things in their surroundings, recover from adversity more easily, and feel more in control over their life circumstances. And each of these is determined to some extent on the way their brains process information.
For example, if optimists and pessimists are exposed to pleasurable stimuli, like a picture of a beautiful sunset or a box of chocolates, both will experience good feelings in the moment; but optimists can better sustain those feelings longer, because of asymmetric brain activity in which the left side is more active than the right. This difference in brain activity may help explain why optimists are more likely to take risks in approaching potentially rewarding experiences while pessimists, who have greater activity in the right side of the brain, tend to be more cautious.
Researchers have also found that people who are anxious or depressed—who also tend to be more pessimistic—have less connection between the prefrontal cortex of the brain (associated with cognitive activity) and the amygdala (associated with a feeling of fear). This means that pessimists are less able to control their fear response with thoughts, making them susceptible to emotional trauma from non-threatening situations and to difficulty recovering from setbacks in their lives.
Much of this brain science would just be mildly interesting, if it weren’t for the differences in life outcomes for optimists and pessimists. According to Fox, a positive outlook in life correlates with several benefits, including higher paying jobs, stronger interpersonal relationships, and better health outcomes. In addition, research has shown that a positive outlook widens and expands our attention, allowing us to be more creative. Having these differences in brain activity, therefore, can directly impact the way you experience the world and how successful you can be.
And, although the way we respond to life’s ups and downs is controlled to a large extent by genes and our environment, there’s always neuroplasticity—or the ability of the brain to grow and change in response to stimulation and new learning. That means connections in the brain can be strengthened or weakened with conscious effort. Fox relates how we can build our optimism skills through learning to re-evaluate negative events—much like therapists teach people to do in cognitive behavioral therapy, or by practicing meditation, interacting with other people, and becoming more engaged with our work or leisure life through flow experiences.
That’s good news for pessimists who wish to change their outlook in life and reap some of the positive benefits. And for optimists like me, who are always on the lookout for happiness and more control over their future, it’s a no-brainer.