“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde
Do you recollect studying how humans evolved from the apes? In the times when early men still lived in caves and hunted, the threat to survival was high. Hence they had to always be on ALERT. This ‘alertness’ passed from generation to generation and even now it is natural to our biology to save ourselves first from any negative experiences in our lives. Thanks to our limbic system and the evolved prefrontal cortex in our brains which have played a great role in our evolution. It is the inherent strive to survive with hope for the future, as an underlying sense of optimism that is mostly at work in all of us.
So, what is optimism? Optimism is a mental attitude reflecting a belief or hope that the outcomes, in general, will be positive, favorable, and desirable. Historically, optimism as an idea was very simplistic. In recent years, the growing body of knowledge has opened up many dimensions to it. Research has revealed the positive impact of optimism in terms of increased life expectancy, general health as well as mental health and wellbeing, improved performance in sports and work, greater recovery rates from surgeries and better-coping strategies when faced with adversity.
The science behind optimism:
A research conducted by researchers at New York University suggests that people are more optimistic about future events viewed from a first-person perspective as compared to the past. The fMRI conducted on the participants revealed that two structures namely, the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (RACC) and the right amygdala appeared to be more strongly activated when they were optimistic. In fact, the RACC along with our emotional center, the amygdala, works together to downplay negative emotional responses.
The states of optimism also help to reduce the release of the stress hormone cortisol and it promotes the release of dopamine which enhances motivation, keeps one happy, and increases the risk-taking behavior. Optimistic individuals sleep better and longer.
Psychological perspectives to being Optimistic.
Shift your focus to your achievements: We are always happy to acknowledge other’s successes and accomplishments. However, when it comes to our own, we frequently play them down or ignore them entirely. To start thinking more positively about yourself, you need to regularly remind yourself of what you have and can achieve. In other words, focus on your potential. Stop listening to your negative voice, reflect on your past achievements, and start to really appreciate your success and what you bring to the table.
Surround yourself with positivity: To help you stay feeling optimistic, surround yourself with positive people who help you to appreciate the good in situations and life in general. This also applies to other influences in your life such as music, literature, and movies – surround yourself with positive influences.
Keep a gratitude diary: Make a conscious effort to start reflecting on all the things that go right and that you have to be happy about by writing a gratitude journal each morning or night, listing all the things you have to be grateful for that day.
Challenge negative thoughts: Ask yourself what’s the evidence that these thoughts are true? What’s the evidence that they are not? Basically, try to question all the negative thoughts that keep coming to you. Try changing the tone of the thoughts. Make them positive, always try to look at the positive perspective.
Cultivate positive thinking: The extent to which a person holds optimistic thought is often influenced by culture and socialization factors. Research shows that traits related to optimism can be inherited and is also influenced by the environment the kids grow up. Parents exhibiting positive parenting styles show a higher level of optimism thereby cultivating and modeling optimism within their children.
Train yourself to weigh the positives: Most of our belief systems take shape from the early education we receive. Hence, teachers play a significant role in cultivating optimism in children. Teachers can guide a child to see the black and white of a situation and weigh their influence to help the child adopt a more optimistic approach to challenges.
Pessimism and the Evolution of Negativity, Robert L. Leahy, American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, and Weill-Cornell University Medical College.
Sharot T, Riccardi AM, Raio CM, & Phelps EA (2007). Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature, 450 (7166), 102-5 PMID: 17960136