Are you an optimist, looking on the bright side of things, or are you more pessimistic, always expecting that things will go wrong. Dr. Elaine Fox is a psychologist at Oxford University, who studies why different people have such a wide variety of responses to the same situation; why some of us see the glass as half full, while others see it as half empty.
Having some ability to detect danger and threat is, of course, important for our survival. But ensuring that we are able to seek out and appreciate things that are going well is also important for a good life. Dr. Fox emphasizes that being an optimist doesn’t mean that you necessarily believe that everything will work out perfectly. Optimists are aware that things are likely to go wrong occasionally, but they believe that they will be able to cope with these things, that they will be able to handle whatever comes their way and that things will work out okay. It’s not that optimists don’t notice the bad things, they just pay more attention to positive things and remember them better. On the other hand, pessimists are fearful about the future, focus on potential dangers, and are very attentive to what might go wrong.
Michael J. Fox, the actor, calls himself an incurable optimist, even though he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the very young age of 29. He says “Don’t think that I’m not aware of risk or what might go wrong. I’m actually very good at assessing risk, but I know that I will be able to deal with whatever happens. Over the years, I have learned that I can deal with any difficulty. I don’t necessarily like it, but I generally feel I can deal with it.”
Elaine Fox has studied the brain circuits associated with optimism (what she calls “the sunny brain” – which directs us to pleasurable activities), and those associated with pessimism (what she calls “the rainy brain” – which allows us to have a rapid response to perceived danger). Of course, we all have both of these brain circuits and, to be happy, we need to have the right balance between our rainy and sunny brain circuits. The difference between optimists and pessimists is how strongly activated these different pathways are in the brain, how dominant one pathway is over the other. It’s what we focus on that determines what pathways get reinforced. When we focus on the negative, the rainy brain circuit gets reinforced, whereas if we focus on the positive, the sunny brain circuit becomes dominant.
Optimism is linked with better health, better resilience in a crisis, persistence, success, more opportunities. Although there are likely many factors that contribute to whether or not you are an optimist, the good news is that pessimists can become more optimistic. Elaine Fox states “The brain circuits underlying our pessimistic brain and our optimistic brain are among the most plastic in the human brain. We can strengthen our sunny brains. Though not easy, it is possible to change.”
“If you can imagine water cutting a pathway through the sand, the more the water runs down one pathway, the more entrenched the riverbed will become. It’s a little bit like that in the brain. These circuits of chemical are set up so that the more you zone in on the negative, the more your brain learns to tune in to the negative. The thing is, it’s sand, not stone. It’s not easy, but with effort we can change the way we see things, and that does lead to structural changes in the brain.”
To become more optimistic and shift to a sunnier outlook, we need to make an effort to find and focus on the positive:
- Make a list of all the things that go right and all the things that go wrong in your life. You can do this everyday. Although pessimists predict that there will be more bad than good, they may be surprised to see, and therefore be able to take note of, all the good things that happen. Keep a gratitude journal, a diary of those things that you feel grateful for. Count your blessings.
- Work on your positivity ratio, the ratio of positive experiences in your day to the negative ones. It has been recommended to aim at having three positive experiences for every negative one you experience. You may not be able to avoid some negatives, but you can make it your goal to notice, discover and initiate more positives in your life. Notice the good things. Savour the positives. Do things you enjoy. Have some fun!
- Get some physical activity every day. This can boost your mood, helping you to feel more positively about your life. Make sure that the activities that you engage in are ones that are pleasurable and leave you feeling good.
- Try some mindfulness meditation. Research has shown that people who practice mindfulness tend to feel happier. Mindfulness allows us to focus our brains on the present, rather than worrying about the past or fretting about the future. There are many apps that you can find that guide you through the process of learning mindfulness meditation. There are also free mindfulness meditation groups available on main campus that you might want to check out.
Take care, and work on strengthening your sunny brain!
This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.