The latest science reveals why optimism really is life’s panacea – and, to be positive might be easier than you think, even if you’re hardwired to worry.
- Professor Elaine Fox is a psychologist and neuroscientist. Her book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, explores the neural hardwiring behind optimism and pessimism – and how to change it and be positive.
- Dr Barbara Fredrickson is a psychology professor, and the author of Positivity.
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Being positive has to be real
First things first, thinking happy thoughts or trotting out well-worn Pollyanna phrases won’t work. Being positive brings rewards only when it’s heartfelt and, most importantly, transforms into positive actions. When you deeply believe the best, the best is more likely to happen. The child who’s outgoing, warm and friendly is more likely to draw smiles and affection – so life becomes sunnier.
Likewise, an accident survivor with life-changing paralysis who believes life can be better is more likely to socialise, exercise and find purpose than someone who stays at home feeling everything is over.
There are other benefits, too. An optimist – one who truly feels things will turn out fine in a crisis – is less vulnerable to stress-related illness and has a more robust immune system.
It takes optimism to launch a business, chase a pay rise, or start dating post-divorce. Optimism isn’t “magical thoughts” – it’s the emotions and, most importantly, the actions that count.
The neuroscience behind the thinking
Pessimism and optimism are deeply rooted in our fear- and pleasure circuits – the ancient neural pathways that protect and motivate us.
At the heart of our “fear circuit” is a tiny, almond-shaped structure called the amygdala, buried deep in the brain. It needs to be powerful – when you’re confronted by a snake, for instance, it kicks into action, stops you in your tracks and drowns out all other messages.
But some of us have an amygdala that reacts to the merest hint of danger, and this is where pessimism takes shape. (“Online dating? Too risky.” “Speaking out in the meeting? Too scary…”)
Meanwhile, optimism is created in the left side of the brain by our “pleasure circuit” and is just as crucial for survival. Seeking the good stuff is what sustains us and gives us reason to keep going when times are tough. Research shows that those with more left-sided activity are pleasure seekers, happier, and more optimistic.
So how can I change my brain?
Though optimism and pessimism derive from deep within us, the latest science shows that both systems are more flexible than we ever imagined.
Our brains can learn and change – literally reshape – until the day we die, and it’s our fear and pleasure circuits that are particularly pliable.
If we try, we can strengthen our positive impulse and weaken our negativity. Without effort though, patterns of thought (that lead to feelings, which lead to actions – or inactions) become habitual and hard to shift.’
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Think “three to one”
For optimism to be heartfelt, it needs to be rooted in your experience – and three positive emotions for every negative one is the critical ratio to aim for. Making an effort to control negativity and strengthen positivity will help you build an optimistic mindset.
So, how do you do it?
Argue like a lawyer
Most distress in daily life isn’t created by events – it’s our interpretation.
So your teenage daughter yells at you, storms out, slams the door – it’s pessimistic thoughts that turn it into a crisis. (“She hates me. We have a terrible relationship. Tomorrow’s going to be a nightmare…”)
A scientifically proven way to stop this downward spiral is disputing it like a good lawyer would. “Does she hate me? Or is she acting like every other teenager? And remember yesterday when she spontaneously gave me that hug? Or last week when we went out for coffee… and didn’t her older sister go through the same stage, and didn’t it pass?”
When something bad happens – your proposal at work is overruled, for instance – it’s easy to go over it again and again in your mind. (“It made me look so stupid… And I’d have expected X to support me… Is Y trying to isolate me? Was it such a bad proposal? Am I going to lose my job?”) Rumination – fanning negative thoughts and examining them from every angle – will stop you from thinking straight or seeing the bigger picture. If you catch yourself doing it, quickly seek a healthy distraction.
Go for a run. Try that recipe you tore out of last month’s w&h! If it lifts your mood, great – but even a neutral activity that doesn’t necessarily uplift you, but will certainly distract you, such as programming your new phone or sorting out your digital photographs, can break rumination and save you from the downward spiral.
Savour the good
Optimism isn’t just about “finding the good in the bad”; true optimists are life’s pleasure seekers, the people who really relish the good within the good.
Whether it’s in the future, present, or past, stretch out the good times and the magic moments, or pump them up, with thoughts like, “It’s going to be fabulous when…” or “Just remembering that always makes me smile…”
Learning to truly savour sometimes means slowing down. If your friend from another province calls once a week, don’t multitask while you’re speaking. Find a quiet room with a comfortable chair and focus on that call.
Optimism derives from our pleasure circuit that our ancestors needed for survival. It made them seek out food, warmth, comfort, and the protection of others. We don’t need to “seek out” food and shelter any more, but our high-tech, fast-moving, multitasking existence means we do need to seek out connection.
The most positive people spend less time alone and more time with those they love. When you’re with others, you laugh more, smile more, find meaning and create sustainable memories.
Find your flow
Remember, sincerity matters. To be a true optimist, you need a life with love, connection, meaning and interest.
Finding your passion – something that fully absorbs you and gives you an overwhelming feeling of being in the moment – is key. It could be your work or a hobby – writing, painting, walking, baking. Research suggests most of us experience this flow every couple of months. About 12% of people never experience it, while 10% of us experience it daily.
Dream about your future
Having a future to look forward to builds meaning and positivity. Conjure up the best possible outcomes for yourself.
Research shows that people who do this are more positive, partly as it makes sense of the present and gives meaning to everyday life.
If you’re writing a book, imagine the day it’s published, the glowing reviews, the accolades, the awards. If you’re back studying, picture yourself doing really well and requalifying in your chosen field. Whatever it is, see it in great, technicolour detail – it’s an optimist’s secret weapon.
Meditate and be mindful
Mindfulness has been tried and tested for thousands of years, and really can give us power over our pessimism. It creates a detachment that dissolves negative thinking. You may still have niggling doubts and worries, but this gives you the power to let them pass.
Brain scans have shown that meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex and can reduce the activation of the amygdala, the source of our pessimistic impulse.
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