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Not Everything Is Broken – The Neurobiology of Optimism

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winnond freedigitalphotos dot netIs the glass half full or half empty? That depends on whether you ask an optimist or a pessimist. What if it turned out that you have the water pitcher also, and can fill up the glass anytime you’d like? What if the more often you filled the glass, the better your life became?

Filling up the glass is the equivalent of a more optimistic mindset, which can create a new perspective in anything that you do. To the pessimist, change is scary and overwhelming but to the optimist change means growth and endless possibilities. Did you know that there are health benefits for optimism and health risks for pessimism?

Specifically, factors such as optimism, life satisfaction and happiness are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease

Researchers from the Harvard University School of Public Health found that a positive psychological outlook appears to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular events. Specifically, factors such as optimism, life satisfaction and happiness are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease regardless of an individual’s age, socioeconomic status, body weight and smoking history[1].

Your brain on pessimism

Your brain on pessimism

A 2009 study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity[2] found that higher levels of pessimism were linked to unfavorable immune system changes. Pessimistic attributional style has emerged as a psychosocial correlate of poor health, including cardiovascular disease.

Researchers have found that we can rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient, and productive, to see more possibilities wherever we look. One study found that optimism is strongly related to preparedness, such as readiness to deal with setbacks and take advantage of opportunities[3]. Mindset really is everything!

…the more you believe in your own ability to succeed, the more likely it is that you will

Un-do your negative outlook, for better health

Un-do your negative outlook, for better health

Just like your mindset about work affects your performance, so too does your mindset about your own ability. That is, the more you believe in your own ability to succeed, the more likely it is that you will. Beliefs are so powerful because they dictate our efforts and actions.

To increase your optimistic thinking and start re-wiring your brain to create positive spirals, consider these four questions:

  • In uncertain times, do you usually expect the best?
  • Do you expect more good things to happen to you than bad?
  • Do you think that if something can go wrong for you, it will?
  • Do you hardly ever expect things to go your way?

According to a study published in Nature Neuroscience[4], people who respond “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the latter two are characterized as optimists.

Problems are only temporary and positive solutions are more enduring over time

Develop a thirst for positive thinking

Develop a thirst for positive thinking

Here are some additional beliefs that promote optimism, and we encourage you to adopt them as your own beliefs (think of these as the water pitcher you have, that allows you to top off that half-full glass):

  • Considering everything, mostly good things are happening
  • Problems are only temporary and positive solutions are more enduring over time
  • People around me are working diligently to improve things
  • Life is good, and it will only get better

And while we extoll the adoption of a more optimistic outlook, we will just mention a study[5] that concluded on the basis of psychological evidence that, “People should be optimistic enough to take advantage of the many benefits of a positive outlook, but they should also sufficiently temper that optimism so that they can motivate preventive action and avoid being caught off guard.”

To learn more about how optimisim works, view our handout “How to Build Optimism“, created by our CWFL colleague Jason Sackett LCSW.

MarleneCuevasJeff-Harris_thumbnailBy Marlene Cuevas, MSW Candidate 2016, CWFL intern
and Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CWFL program manager

[1] Protecting the heart with optimism; in Harvard Gazette 2012; http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/04/protecting-the-heart-with-optimism/
[2] Dispositional optimism and stress-induced changes in immunity and negative mood; in Brain, Behavior and Immunity; 2009 Aug; 23(6): 810–816
[3] Is Optimism Always Best? Future Outlooks and Preparedness; in Current Directions In Psychological Science, Association for Psychological Science; 2006, Volume 15—Number 6
[4] The optimistic brain; in Nature Neuroscience 10, 1345 – 1347 (2007)
[5] Ibid; Is Optimism Always Best?

Photo Credits
Pessimistic Brain by Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net
Unhappy by Sattva at freedigitalphotos.net
Water glasses by Winnond at freedigitalphotos.net

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