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Optimism and pessimism: What makes us who we are?

10 Sep, 2012

Sunny day or rainy day?Some people appear to be incurable pessimists, seeing the negative in everything. Others are upbeat and optimistic convinced they could cope with whatever life throws at them. At the extremes, these two different ways of seeing the world can tip people towards anxiety and depression or flourishing and wellbeing. Such divergent outlooks on life seem to be fairly hard-wired. Remarkable new evidence, however, is questioning just how wired-in traits like optimism and pessimism really are, says Elaine Fox.

Is something as apparently deep-rooted as our personality style open to change? Or, can we boost mental health by changing the way we interpret and notice the things that go on around us? Science is gradually nudging towards an answer, which I explain in (hopefully) plain language in a new book called Rainy Brain Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism.

Three major things influence what make us us: our genes, the things that happen to us, and cognitive biases in what we notice and remember. We can’t change our DNA. We often can’t do much about the things that happen to us. Our cognitive biases, however, are different. This is one part of the trio that we can change. Such cognitive biases – subtle shifts of mind toward the good or the bad – are enduring characteristics of the optimistic and the pessimistic mind. These biases operate below our consciousness radar, forming the basis of how we experience the world and underpin our broader outlook on life. 

It turns out that the brain circuits underlying optimism and pessimism– what I call our sunny brain and rainy brain – are highly malleable and open to change. We now know that tiny variations in avoiding negativity or approaching pleasure become second nature over time, which leads to fundamental consistencies in how we react to the world. We need both our rainy brain and our sunny brain. But, if the brain circuits that control our fear reactions strengthen and dominate, our mind can develop an overly pessimistic stance, which in the worst-case scenario can tip into anxiety disorders and depression – an overactive rainy brain. Optimal mental health, on the other hand, involves stronger sunny brain circuits that can set us on the path to truly flourishing. These tendencies become deeply entrenched and are very difficult – although not impossible – to shift. Remarkably, we now know that we can tip the balance helping us to overcome pessimism and develop a more optimistic style of thinking.

The evidence for this comes largely from treatments designed to relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety, conditions characterised by an overarching pessimism towards the past or the future. Antidepressant drugs, for instance have been shown to work because of the effect they have on the persistent negative cognitive biases that characterise depression. Depressed people selectively remember the bad times more vividly than the good, for instance, and antidepressants can normalize this bias. Likewise, talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or techniques like mindfulness-based meditation, are effective in overturning the dangerous biases that occur in anxiety and depression. It’s the change in “toxic” biases that’s thought to improve mental health.

An exciting new vista is opening up with the development of simple computer “games” designed to tackle negative biases head on. Called cognitive bias modification, or CBM, these interventions can be delivered on smartphones or computers. CBM involves the presentation of two images –a hostile and a happy face, say – side by side for a fraction of a second followed by a letter presented in one of these locations. The challenge is to locate the letter as quickly as possible by pressing a button. By consistently placing the letter in the location occupied a moment before by the happy face, the mind can be trained to shift attention away from threatening images and towards more positive aspects of the environment; exactly the cognitive style shown by optimists. Techniques like this can begin to break down the brain’s bad habits, giving us the possibility of profoundly changing our outlook on life for the better.

Simple techniques like these are unlikely to ever replace traditional therapies. Early indications, however, tell us that, with some effort, they can shift our mental maps towards a more sunny brain style. By changing our (bad) habits of mind we can learn to overcome pessimism and place ourselves on the road to truly flourishing. Our outlook on life, it seems, may not be so hard-wired after all.

Elaine Fox

Elaine Fox is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Essex working on research funded by the Wellcome Trust. She tweets as @profelainefox.

Image credit: Flickr/KlaireLee

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