What is optimism?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 of The Year of Happy‘s month on optimism. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

 

Is your glass half full or half empty?

Optimism is one of the most mainstream concepts in positive psychology, almost synonymous with happiness or positivity itself: She’s so optimistic about life.

But like gratitude, optimism is more complex than it seems. Considered a character strength and a positive emotion, it’s been defined differently over the years, as we’ll see below. Positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman focused on “optimistic explanatory style,” the way we explain events in our head. Researcher Tali Sharot described the optimism bias, a cognitive illusion that’s more common than optimism itself.

What these various conceptions of optimism all have in common is a positive orientation toward the future, which in turn affects our beliefs and behaviors. Before we learn how to become more optimistic – and why that’s a noble goal, despite what you might read in the media lately – let’s turn to the different ways of understanding optimism.

1. Basic definitions of optimism

UC Riverside’s Sonja Lyubomirsky distinguishes between three types of optimism:

  • Big optimism: The broad feeling that things are going well, and this is a good time to be alive.
  • Little optimism: Optimism about specific, day-to-day circumstances – you’ll pass the test or the bus will be on time.
  • Very small optimism: The less positive but still comforting belief that you’ll get through this day or this year.

Keep these in mind as we move through our month on optimism. Although optimism is talked about like it’s one thing, it’s possible to be optimistic in certain realms of our life but pessimistic in others. Are you confident and optimistic about your career, but a bit more wary in your relationships? Do you feel prepared for today but not for the future? Or vice versa?

2. Elaine Fox: Optimism in practice

In her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, University of Oxford research professor Elaine Fox looks at optimism and pessimism from a different angle: between our two ears. She calls the brain circuitry that leads to optimism the “sunny brain,” and the circuitry that leads to pessimism the “rainy brain.”

Although optimism can be a momentary state – like a burst of optimism about the future – the type of optimism Fox is talking about is a more stable personality trait. This kind of optimism encompasses skills like acceptance, flexibility, and coping:

“Problems are seen [by pessimists] as setbacks rather than opportunities. Optimists … are alert to every opportunity and tend to jump in, boots and all,” Fox writes. “Dispositional optimism is not just about being happy and upbeat, however; it’s more about having genuine hope for the future, a belief that things will work out, and an unshakable faith that we can deal with whatever life throws at us. Optimists are not naive – they don’t believe that nothing will ever go wrong – but they do have a deep-seated conviction that they can cope.” Optimists “have a natural tendency to accept the world as is but believe that the way you deal with things determines who you are.”

A big part of Fox’s conception of optimism is the idea of control. Feeling like the future is hopeless can make pessimists passive, since everything they do doesn’t seem to work out anyway. In contrast, optimists see that their actions matter and they have some say in what happens.

“Optimism is about more than feeling good; it’s about being engaged with a meaningful life, developing resilience, and feeling in control. This dovetails nicely with psychological research showing that the benefits of optimism come from the ability to accept the good along with the bad, and being prepared to work creatively and persistently to get what you want out of life. Optimistic realists, whom I consider to be the true optimists, don’t believe that good things will come if they simply think happy thoughts. Instead, they believe at a very deep level that they have some control over their own destinies,” Fox writes.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield – who creates viral videos on everything from crying to wringing out a towel in space – released “An Astronaut’s Guide to Optimism” to kick off 2015. This short, inspiring video is a tribute to our power to control and design our lives:

3. Elaine Fox: The neuroscience of optimism

According to Fox, the optimistic part of our brain – the “sunny brain” – includes structures like the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in processing motivation, pleasure, reward, and reinforcement; and neurotransmitters like dopamine (related to wanting) and opiods (related to enjoyment). This is one of the reasons optimists are persistent – they want things very much and they believe they can get them. 

“The roots of our sunny brain are embedded deep in pleasure, the parts of our neural architecture that respond to rewards and the good things in life, while the roots of our rainy brain lie deep among the ancient brain structures that alert us to danger and threat – our fear brain,” she writes.

The pessimistic or rainy brain is centered around the amygdala, which responds to threats. Higher brain areas in the prefrontal cortex may try to regulate our fears, but pessimists have fewer links going from the cortex to the amygdala, and thus less control over their negative thoughts. We’ve all been there – we know some fear or worry is irrational, and yet we can’t stop ourselves from ruminating on it.

Of course, all of us healthy humans have both these brain circuits. The difference is a question of development – which pathways have well-traveled grooves? Some of us are more responsive to pleasure and reward, while others of us are more responsive to fear and danger.

The difference becomes quite literal when you perform something called an attentional probe test. Two images are flashed side by side on a screen followed by a “probe,” a tiny dot that appears where one image used to be. If the probe appears where the negative image used to be, pessimists tend to detect it faster because they were already focused on that side; if it appears where the positive image used to be, optimists detect it faster. Pessimism and optimism literally affect what we pay attention to in our environment.

Attentional probe

“A tendency to pay more attention to danger or negativity, however slightly, can result in a pessimistic view of a world filled with constant dangers and disappointments. A partiality for pleasure and positivity . . . can give the impression of a world overflowing with success and good things,” writes Fox.

Fox explains her framework more in this video:

4. Tali Sharot: The optimism bias

You may have also heard of something called the optimism bias, which seems to run counter to the prevalent pessimism these days. According to the University College London’s Tali Sharot, 80% of people exhibit a cognitive bias for optimism.

The optimism bias makes us overestimate the likelihood of positive events and underestimate the likelihood of negative ones. For example, people routinely underestimate their likelihood of getting in a car accident or getting cancer. It also influences our perception, so we tend to see more good in the world; and our actions, so we tend to take steps to achieve our goals. In essence, it’s the brain’s evolutionarily adaptive way of getting us out of bed in the morning.

Sharot stumbled upon the optimism bias while researching the way we imagine the future: she noticed that people’s imaginings were very rosy. The optimism bias is one of the illusions of the human brain, just like spatial disorientation, the bias blind spot, and the introspection illusion. But learning about it won’t make it go away. In her TED talk, Sharot explains the neuroscience of the optimism bias, its benefits, and when to beware of it:

5. Martin Seligman’s optimistic explanatory style

Before you read this section, take the Learned Optimism test to find out whether your explanatory style is optimistic or pessimistic.

“Each of us carries a word in his heart, a ‘no’ or a ‘yes.’”

In his 1991 book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman set out a theory of optimism that is still influential today.

But what he calls “optimism” isn’t quite how you might imagine it. Instead of talking about a general positive feeling about the future, Seligman digs down to one of the roots of that feeling. He focuses on something called “explanatory style,” which is the way we explain to ourselves why things happen.

For example, say a friend cancels your coffee date last-minute. If you’re pessimistic, you might feel like you’re boring and she probably has better things to do. If you’re optimistic, you’re more likely to believe that an important work meeting came up.

What if something good happens? If a pessimist is praised at work, they might think that their boss was in a good mood that day. The optimist feels proud and believes they’ve made the right career choice and they’re a competent person.

Can you see the difference between these explanations? Seligman breaks it down into three factors:

  • Permanence: Optimists believe the causes of bad events are temporary (a friend’s ill-timed work meeting) and the causes of good events are permanent (being a competent person). Pessimists believe the opposite: bad events have permanent causes (I’m boring) and good events have temporary ones (the boss’s good mood).
  • Pervasiveness: Optimists believe that the causes of bad events are constrained to this particular area of life – the difference between saying “I was distracted that day at work” and “I’m a failure.” But they see the causes of good events as more broad – praise is an indication that they’re a competent person, not just a competent worker or competent on this one project. Pessimists do the opposite. Taken together, permanence and pervasiveness make up Seligman’s conception of hope.
  • Personalization: Optimists tend to take credit for good events and attribute bad events to external causes – luck and happenstance, or someone else’s mistake. As above, it wasn’t the optimist’s fault that their coffee date got canceled, but they can take credit for their boss’s praise. On the other hand, the pessimist takes responsibility for a canceled coffee date but not for a pat on the back.

“Your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world – whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless,” Seligman writes. Seen this way, you can imagine how explanatory style influences the more general feelings that we typically call optimism or pessimism. If every bad thing is permanent, life-altering, and our fault, we’re bound to be pessimistic about the future; if it’s temporary, limited, and a fluke, it’s easier to be optimistic. Luckily, changing our explanatory style is a straightforward route to becoming more optimistic (as we’ll see in Week 2).

6. The origins of optimism

Have you ever noticed how happy most children are? When Seligman looked at the optimism scores for children vs. adults, he found that depressed children score about the same as non-depressed adults – sadder children have about the same level of optimism as happier adults. A sobering finding.

Evolution may have ensured that we don’t become depressed and suicidal before puberty, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t learning habits that will affect us later in life. According to Seligman, an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style is learned in childhood from at least three sources:

  • Your primary caretaker’s explanatory style: Children pick up on the way their mother, father, or caretaker talks about why good and bad things happened.
  • Criticism from adults: Criticism can be optimistic or pessimistic – the difference between telling a child they aren’t smart, good at math, or talented on the violin vs. they didn’t try hard enough.
  • Trauma. If we have trouble coping with something as a child, that could teach us that we’re helpless to overcome life’s challenges. But surviving a childhood crisis can help make us optimistic. This may have been the source of Helen Keller’s great optimism. After emerging from the dark, silent world of a deaf and blind person, she had an amazing appreciation for the world and the future as she began to learn to communicate.

Keller writes in Optimism: An Essay, “Once I knew the depth where no hope was, and darkness lay on the face of all things. Then love came and set my soul free. Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. Once I fretted and beat myself against the wall that shut me in. Now I rejoice in the consciousness that I can think, act, and attain heaven. My life was without past or future; death, the pessimist would say, ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished.’ But a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living. Night fled before the day of thought, and love and joy and hope came up in a passion of obedience to knowledge. Can anyone who has escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?”

As children, boys tend to be more pessimistic than girls – although that flips later in life as women become more depressed than men.

Two other documented sources of optimism are more general, but relevant to any parent trying to raise optimistic children. One is affection: children who feel secure in their parent’s love may be more confident to explore the world and feel hopeful about the future. And having the chance to make mistakes and fail helps children learn that they’re strong enough to handle it. (If you’re interested in how to raise optimistic children, check out Seligman’s book The Optimistic Child.)

What about the genetics of optimism? Fox’s research has suggested that optimism is about 40% heritable, but there is no one optimism or pessimism gene. Much of it comes down to experience.

Experiences of fear can be intense and memorable, leaving their impression on our rainy brain. Repeated experiences of fear, loss, or anxiety can tilt the balance in favor of the negative and send a signal to our brains: Be on the alert! Danger ahead. Has a horror movie ever left you jumpy and nervous, double-locking the doors and being startled by little creaks in your house? A similar thing can happen in our life at large, as early negative experiences make us overly sensitive to threat.

“Frequent activation of the alarm centers at the heart of our emergency brain [can gradually nudge us] toward a more pessimistic mindset, on the lookout for the worst,” writes Fox.

Luckily, these patterns can be changed. Pessimism is a mental habit, but so is optimism. Next week, we’ll learn about the practices that scientists have developed to increase optimism and choose one to work on in February.

Until then, think about this: do you consider yourself optimistic or pessimistic? Has that changed at all after completing Week 1? Join the discussion on Facebook.

Attentional probe image via Wikipedia

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to cultivate optimism

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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