Are you 'still' an optimist? These questions might help explain why

It may seem impossible to feel upbeat about the future, especially now. But there are common traits optimists share that can help improve anyone’s outlook

By Eva Holland

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Published: Sat 11 Feb 2023, 9:38 PM

Last updated: Sat 11 Feb 2023, 9:45 PM

Imagine you’re back in high school — fluorescent lights humming, hard plastic chairs, a classroom stuffy with hormones and anxiety — and you’ve just aced a test. Do you think to yourself, “I guess I got lucky today”? Or does your internal monologue say, “Damn, I’m good!”?

Now imagine that you’ve failed the test. Does the voice inside you whisper: “Of course. You’re so bad at this.” Or does it say, “Ugh — you just didn’t study hard enough.”

And which of these responses might brand you as an optimist?

You might think, for example, that the first response — crediting luck for a good outcome — is a sign of optimism, since it suggests good times ahead. (After all, you’re lucky!) But the belief that a good result is thanks to elements out of your control actually indicates a pessimistic outlook.

And while the self-critical response to the bad outcome (you didn’t study hard enough) might seem like a downer, it’s actually a product of positive thinking — since it suggests you believe that, if you take a different approach to future tests, you can expect a better result.

When we talk about optimism, it’s often easy to oversimplify it as having a relentlessly upbeat outlook. Optimists, we imagine, spend their time gazing at the bright side of life through rose-colored glasses, sipping glasses half-full of good cheer.

But the science suggests that optimism is best understood not as an unchanging attitude but as a pattern of responses — which taken together dictate how we view our prospects. Being optimistic is more complicated than blithely thinking, “Everything will turn out fine.”

Optimism and pessimism, it turns out, are all about the stories we tell ourselves after both our successes and our failures.

So ask yourself this: What kind of stories have you told yourself over the last few years — a stretch of time that even the most practiced optimist may have found challenging?

Because, as it turns out, those stories matter. And psychologists have devised questions that can help us understand why.

In 2023, optimism can feel like a challenge. The pandemic is three years old and the planet’s climate future seems increasingly in crisis, to name just two outsized concerns. If ever there were a time to be pessimistic about optimism, it would seem to be right now.

When Dr. Martin Seligman was a young man on the verge of adulthood, at the dawn of the 1960s, he was a committed pessimist. “I toyed with writing about death and dying, and I wore black much of the time,” Seligman wrote in his autobiography, The Hope Circuit. “I was morbidly introspective and through freshman year kept a handwritten journal of dark thoughts.”

Seligman had his reasons. His father, after a series of strokes, had become paralysed and depressed, never recovering either physically or emotionally. On scholarship at a private military academy where he didn’t fit in easily with his affluent classmates, Seligman had been denied promotions and prizes, despite being at the top of his high-school class — slights that, years later, a former faculty member confirmed were manifestations of antisemitism.

At 18, Seligman would have seemed an unlikely character to become a future founder of the field known as positive psychology.

But he found his place and his people at Princeton University, he writes, and later settled into graduate research in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman distinguished himself for his work on the phenomenon of learned helplessness: the idea, internalised to varying degrees by some of us, that nothing we do matters and so there is no point in trying. In other words — the opposite of optimism.

Seligman and other researchers examined this phenomenon through a series of experiments, such as exposing lab animals or human subjects to adverse conditions like a mild shock or an irritating noise. Sometimes they would provide a mechanism for the subjects to make the irritant stop; in other cases, there was no way for the subject to change their situation. The aim was to see if people could either be taught to seek a solution or persuaded to give up trying.

But there was a group, Seligman found, that kept persistently trying to improve their circumstances, long after the other study subjects had quit. Seligman became fascinated by these subjects — who, it turned out, skewed more heavily optimistic when their attitudes were tested.

So Seligman decided to study them instead.

In the nearly 40 years since, he and his colleagues have examined the optimists among us: what makes us optimistic, what optimism looks like and the extent to which optimism can be learned. Now 80, he is still teaching, studying and publishing about the benefits of optimistic thinking — and advancing our understanding of how optimism works.

So what else do we know about optimism? Research suggests that our starting point, or default mode, is at least partly inherited. In a study of a large group of twins, Seligman and others found that identical twins — whose DNA is a perfect match — were more likely to both be optimists than were fraternal twins, who only share half their DNA.

Evidence also suggests that optimism is basically equal across racial categories and largely the same in men and women. And, in general, it is a fairly stable trait: People who are optimists when they are young are likely to still be optimists in old age.

But where does the capacity for optimism come from? Dr. Elaine Fox, a professor of psychology at the University of Adelaide, has studied the neuroscience of optimism and pessimism. She frames these two attitudes as manifestations of our two most basic drives: to pursue reward and to avoid danger.

There are two primary brain structures implicated in those drives, she explained: the amygdala, which is associated with emotional reactions such as fear and uncertainty, and the nucleus accumbens, which is involved in our pleasure system. Both are ancient structures that we have in common with many other animals. But, in humans, both structures are in constant conversation with our prefrontal cortex, which mitigates, or reasons with, the other parts of the brain.

The standard analogy is an accelerator and a brake. In a highly anxious person, the amygdala might be more active as an accelerator while the prefrontal cortex is less likely to slam on the brakes. In an optimist, the nucleus accumbens might be more active, said Fox, while “the controls on that are also slightly less active.”

The pleasure systems in the brain aren’t solely about feelings of enjoyment or satisfaction, she explained. They also run our desires and drive. Fox argued that much of the success attributed to having an optimistic outlook is really about persistence and adaptability. “It’s not some sort of magic juice,” she said of optimism — it’s that people inclined toward optimism are more likely to persist in chasing their goals.

Or, as Seligman put it: “Optimists try harder.” And that helps in all sorts of evolutionarily beneficial ways.

Beyond the most basic evolutionary struggles, we know that, on the whole, optimism is good for us. Optimists tend to live longer, be more successful professionally and be less likely to experience depression and other illnesses.

When crises occur, Seligman’s research shows, optimism can even offer some protection against the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“The first day that you join the United States Army, you take a 100-item test that we devised,” Seligman explained. “It asks you about optimism, pessimism, and about catastrophisation,” an extreme form of pessimism that involves irrational anxiety over the worst possible outcome — for example, if your spouse doesn’t text you right back after work and you spiral into visions of a car accident or a funeral.

Seligman’s team followed a cohort of nearly 80,000 American soldiers who entered the military, completed the test and then deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan for active duty between 2009 and 2013. (The results of the study were published in a 2019 paper in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.)

“Five percent of the force is diagnosed with PTSD,” said Seligman, “and we asked, could you predict it? And the answer was, robustly, yes.” Seligman identified two risk factors for PTSD. One is severe combat and the other, he said, “is being in the worst quartile of pessimists.”

With all other factors being equal, soldiers who leaned the hardest toward catastrophic thinking were 29 per cent more likely than the average soldier to experience PTSD, while the soldiers who catastrophised the least were 25 per cent less likely. When you combined catastrophic thinking with high-intensity combat the results were, well, catastrophic: Those soldiers were 274 per cent more likely to develop PTSD than those who avoided both risk factors.

Optimism is not just a factor in our mental health. Seligman and others have conducted long-term studies that track optimists and pessimists through the years, monitoring for things like cardiovascular disease.

“People have estimated that being in the bottom quartile of pessimists is roughly the same as smoking two and three packs of cigarettes a day, for cardiovascular death,” said Seligman. As for all-cause mortality, he reported that “optimistic people live on average between six and eight years longer than pessimistic people.”

Can pessimism ever be a good thing? “Clearly it’s got utility because there is so much of it,” he said. But he’s only found one profession of those he’s examined (he hasn’t studied journalism; I asked) where it seems to be a clear-cut advantage.

“Lawyers call it prudence,” he said. “But it’s basically trying to protect your client against all these awful unlikely things that could occur.”

In a study of a University of Virginia law school cohort, the pessimists were more likely to land on the law review and ultimately more likely to find better jobs. But, Seligman noted, lawyers also have higher than average rates of divorce, depression and suicide.

Always seeing the worst-case scenario, he explained, can be an advantage under the right circumstances, but it can also come at a cost.

Personally, I’ve been feeling more pessimistic lately. Seligman’s description of what we tell ourselves when we catastrophise — “when bad things happen to me, everything unravels” — felt uncomfortably familiar to me.

So it was helpful to speak to Seligman and Fox and to recognise these patterns in my own thoughts — to see myself generalising from the negative events in my world and ignoring or flinging caveats at the positives in my life. I recognised that these thought patterns are tangible and specific. So it feels like something I can address.

Seligman confirmed that hunch. We can, with some effort, alter our balance of optimistic and pessimistic thinking.

“It’s now a robust, replicated finding that you can teach people to, for example, argue against their most catastrophic thoughts with reasonable evidence and move pessimism into optimism,” he said.

Several recent meta-analyses, which crunched data from dozens of studies using tens of thousands of study subjects, have examined the research on counselling techniques known as positive psychology interventions, programmes that help us reframe the stories we tell ourselves. These meta-analyses found that the interventions were consistently beneficial.

“So there’s a technology,” said Seligman, “and it works.”

Whether you’re inclined toward optimism or pessimism, you have some control over your outlook. And that’s something to be optimistic about.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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