The science of optimism

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19 May, 2015 Dr. Linda Friedland Performance

Since I would consider myself more a realist than a patent optimist, I find the Mayo clinic research into the science of optimism uplifting. In one study, adults shown to be pessimists based on psychological tests had higher death rates over a 30-year period than those who were optimistic. Hundreds of similar studies corroborate these finding including those from Duke University Medical Centre that heart patients who were optimistic about their treatment and recovery were more likely to be alive after 15 years than patients with similar disease but lower expectations.

"Do not mistake optimism for positive thinking" explains Suzanne C. Segerstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, in a book called “Breaking Murphy’s Law.” She outlines how optimism is not about being positive so much as it is about being motivated and persistent. Segerstrom and other researchers have found that rather than giving up and walking away from difficult situations, optimists attack problems head-on. They plan a course of action, seek out advice from others and stay focused on solutions. Dr. Segerstrom wrote that when faced with uncontrollable stressors, optimists tend to react by building what she calls “existential resources". Although research has indicated that a propensity toward optimism is strongly influenced by genes, most likely ones that govern neurotransmitters in the brain, the good news is that many of the attributes of optimism can be learned even as adults, Dr. Segerstrom explains.

Elaine Fox, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England and author of a book on the science of optimism, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,” also emphasizes that “positive thinking is not the main thing about optimism." She stresses that "what really makes the difference is action."After Thomas Edison unsuccessfully tried more than 10,000 different ways to develop an electric lamp, he famously proclaimed: ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. ”The important thing is having a sense of control over your life so that when you experience a setback, you feel you can do something about it.

Or, as Dr Fox writes: “Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough". Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them. Dr. Fox has shown that while brain circuits vary from person to person, it is possible to strengthen what she calls the “sunny” brain and weaken the “rainy” brain.

Among the science-based retraining methods described are these:

  • Face your fears head on
  • Re-evaluate events in your everyday life
  • Practice mindful meditation. Allow feelings and thoughts to pass through your mind without judging or reacting to them; that helps create a sense of detachment from negative experiences.
  • Take control over how you feel instead of letting feelings control you
  • Be fully engaged. Get involved in activities that are meaningful to you

The Mayo clinic researchers offered these additional suggestions:

  • Avoid negative self-talk. Instead of focusing on prospects of failure, dwell on the positive aspects of a situation.
  • Surround yourself with upbeat people
  • Focus on situations that you can control, and forget those you can’t