A Life Half Full: The Power of Optimism to Hack your Brain

It’s an age-old question: is the glass half full or half empty? Traditional psychology has entrenched in social narratives that individuals are either pessimists or optimists, that this is an innate character trait which is predetermined and that there are little to no means by which you can effect meaningful change to your outlook. You either like to look on the bright side, or you don’t.

Adlerian psychology takes a different view. Adler argued that people’s moods and day to day feelings are not the result of an innate, scripted response, but are instead reliant on the outlook they choose to have on the world and its events. He argues that very rarely can you have control over the events which affect you, but what you can control is how you interpret them when they happen to you.

This is essentially the foundation for positive psychology. Over the last few years there has been a surge in the research conducted on how to live your best life, with more studies carried out in the last 7 years than in the previous 20. While classic psychology has tended to focus on what induces mental health to suffer, focusing on mental illnesses and disorders, positive psychology attempts to explain the differences between individuals who are actively happy and enjoy their life, and individuals who just sort of get by. If life satisfaction were a scale, positive psychology looks at and attempts to explain the differences between those at a 5 and those at a 10.

The key findings of positive psychology are as follows:

  • Gratitude is monumentally important to a person’s well being
  • Material factors such as wealth or social status are not decisive of personal happiness in the long run
  • A person’s relationships are of fundamental importance to their well being
  • Happiness can be learned by changing your interpretation of events: it is not determined by good or bad fortune

Healthily optimistic

Choosing to search for silver linings has more benefits than you might think. Research shows that people who are more optimistic have a longer life span, enjoy lower rates of depression and distress and have a better immune system. They have increased resistance to the common cold, have better psychological and physical wellbeing and overall better cardiovascular health.

This happens for a few reasons. Firstly, optimism is a key stress management technique. When cortisol levels rise due to stress, they attack your white blood cells – cells which play a key role in your immune system. Your body is then incapable of mounting effective and sustained responses against diseases and infections. Not only this, but it restricts your body’s ability to fight cancer and maintain cardiovascular health, all of which will most likely result in a shorter life expectancy. In preventing these cortisol levels from rising in the first place, optimism acts as a key method of prevention.

Secondly, optimism promotes the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s reward system. It is key in cultivating motivation, creating happiness, enthusiasm, and is even responsible for giving entrepreneurs the courage to take risks. Choosing to look for the positives in a situation actively encourages your brain to create the neurotransmitter responsible for happiness, thereby causing your mood to lighten and lessening the power of the event on you. By merely changing your outlook and interpretation of an event, you can literally engineer a physical response which not only improves how the event affects you, but actively contributes to your happiness.  

The effects of optimism are therefore twofold; they improve your physical health through dampening the effects of stress on your body and improve your mental health by actively increasing your production of dopamine.

Survival of the pessimist?

If optimism has so many benefits, then what is the point in pessimism at all? We all know somebody who is relentlessly pessimistic. No matter what good fortune comes their way, they either cannot see the positive side of things or will inevitably find some potential negative or gloomy forecast to diminish what is happening in the present moment. While this not only darkens the mood for everybody around them, it makes for a depressed, down-trodden existence, limiting their capacity to enjoy good things as and when they happen to them.

As frustrating as it might be for those around them to see such a negative pattern of thoughts, this is actually a very natural way to exist. In terms of evolutionary psychology, it is in our best interests to be pessimistic. If you are always planning and preparing for the worst case scenario, then you are much more likely to survive whatever life throws at you than if you naively assume that life is a bed of roses.

Unfortunately, 2.8 million years later, this is a much less useful aspect of our programming. It pushes us to constantly look for things that might go wrong or are a threat to our survival, meaning that your brain gravitates towards bad experiences and negative feelings, learning much faster from these than from positive ones. This is why a loss, be it a relationship, monetary or a possession, will feel up to four times more painful than the corresponding joy from having whatever it is in your life to begin with. Happiness and satisfaction are simply not in your brain’s best interest.

Your brain is primed for negativity and even has a number of ploys it uses to ensure that pessimism will out. These are called cognitive distortions and have been known to worsen anxiety and depression. They are essentially tricks that your mind plays on you to make things seem worse than they actually are. Examples of this include assigning the words ‘always’ or ‘never’ to a particular setback, dwelling excessively on a single negative thing to the point where it distorts your interpretation of other positives, or assuming that your negative emotions reflect the way that things actually are, e.g. I feel insecure, this proves that I am a second rate person.

Using MRI scans, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that a negative response to expressions of uncertainty is neurally faster than a positive one. Participants who judged uncertain expressions as positive appeared to only do so once they had actively reframed their reaction, consciously training themselves to overcome the knee jerk, negative interpretation.

This is where the key lies. While pessimism appears to be the default tendency for the human brain, it is scientifically possible to rewire your thought pattern and retrain your brain to look for the best in any given situation, thereby increasing your physical and mental health. This is called neuroplasticity and on average takes around 66 days to form as a habit – but it is possible.

Engineering happiness

There are scientifically proven ways to flex your optimism muscle, training it to be stronger and stronger and increasing your likelihood of interpreting events in a positive manner, increasing your overall well being. A good place to start is by practising gratitude. This could be as simple as writing down three things to be grateful for at the end of every day. The key is to take a moment to look for things which are already present in your life and become mindful of the positive aspects which you perhaps take for granted. You could also compose what Dr Seligman – the founder of positive psychology – calls a ‘gratitude visit’. To do this, identify somebody who means a lot to you and write them a letter explaining how they have affected your life and exactly what they mean to you. Seligman’s research has found this to have an immediate boost in the writer’s happiness, lasting up to a month after the event.

An alternative method you can use to retrain your internal monologue to elevate you rather than bring you down therefore is the use of affirmations. An affirmation is a short, positive statement which, when repeated will help to focus the mind on achieving goals and cultivating self -belief.

Anyone who has ever seen an optical illusion knows that your brain takes short cuts to engineer your perception of reality rather than actually perceiving things as they are.

Okay but I refuse to believe A and B are the same colour

These are known as heuristics, are have been famously looked into by Daniel Kahneman in his Nobel Prize winning book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. The active part of your brain consciously looks for things which confirm its deep-set beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. If you hold beliefs that the world is a terrible place, or that bad things always happen to you, then your brain will search for things which confirm this. On the flip side, if you believe that everything is wonderful and that things always work out for the best, then your brain will search for things which back this up, further perpetuating this belief system.

This operates through the brain’s Reticular Activating System (RAS) which acts as filter for information we need and information we don’t. Without this mechanism, we would suffer from sensory overload and be constantly overwhelmed.  An example of this is that your brain is constantly filtering out the view of your nose from your vision, a sight which is always there, but not information essential to your everyday living. This filter also works to bring attention to things that we decide are important to us. Think of the first time you learn a word or hear a phrase. On learning it you may be convinced that is the first time you have ever heard it, yet once you have drawn attention to it you are more than likely to go on and hear that word several more times in different contexts in the next week or so. This is because your RAS has now flagged it as important information, drawing your attention to it rather than filtering it out as useless noise in a saturated sensory environment.

When you repeat an affirmation over and over, this sends a clear message to your RAS that this concept or goal is important to you. It now begins to filter through information and ideas which either reinforce that belief, or help you to achieve that goal. Repeating the affirmation that ‘things always work out for the best’ will ensure that your RAS makes a point of flagging when things do work out for the best, allowing you to consciously take note of even small things which you might otherwise have taken for granted or ignored.

Further, affirming a goal, such as the fact that you are easily and effortlessly on time, will set your RAS working away in the background on information and decisions which will maximise your chances of achieving that goal (being on time in the first place). You are then more likely to take note of the fact that you were on time, reinforcing the message to your RAS and creating a positive cycle of punctuality. This logic applies to anything, be it working to successfully meet deadlines, creating positive encounters with colleagues or even making healthier lifestyle choices.    

While pessimism appears to be the evolutionary default setting for our brains, it is not a state of mind one should resign themselves to. Optimism brings many benefits: it actively decreases the effects of stress on your body and stimulates the production of the happiness hormone. In order to make the most of this, there are several brain hacks you can take advantage of.

  1. Be mindful of cognitive distortions when they occur in your thought patterns
  2. Practise gratitude every day for all the positives in your life and for things you might be taking for granted
  3. Make positive affirmations a part of your daily routine
  4. Consciously change your outlook to always look on the bright side

These can all go a long way to training your brain to allow you to reap the benefits of optimism. After all, why wouldn’t you want to manipulate your brain into living your best life?

Want to read more? Try ‘Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential’ by Dr Carol Dweck, available here.

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