Is your glass half empty . . . or half full?
The world is divided into pessimists and optimists – who respond to life’s events in different ways – but evidence suggests curmudgeons can retrain themselves to see things in a better light
Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly/Irish Times Premedia Department
Michael J Fox at Tracy Pollan at the Golden Globe Awards earlier this month. Despite a diagnosis of Parkinson’s at the age of 29, Fox believed that whatever happened, he’d be able to deal with it. Photograph: Christopher Polk/NBC
When the actor Michael J Fox wanted to understand his optimistic attitude to Parkinson’s disease, he turned to an Irish neuroscientist. Elaine Fox (no relation), a professor at Oxford University, has spent more than 20 years researching the ways people interpret the world around them.
When positive and negative images are flashed before us on a computer screen, our brain activity provides an insight into the unconscious. Studies have shown that in a matter of milliseconds, pessimists automatically filter out the positive and zero in on the negative, while optimists do the opposite.
These “cognitive biases” vary so much from person to person that they effectively shape who we are. They stem from the same survival mechanisms we use to notice dangers and potential rewards, and slight differences in these reactions gradually train the brain to respond in a certain way, building up a network of circuits that tunes us into a more optimistic or pessimistic mindset.
The resulting filter determines how we navigate everyday situations. It’s what leads some people to be overwhelmed by what others would consider a minor event. Whereas the optimist interprets a negative incident (like being overlooked for a promotion) as a temporary disappointment that is changeable, the pessimist sees it as a permanent setback that undermines everything they do.
But optimism is a much deeper concept than just blindly thinking happy thoughts. It requires flexibility, realism and an awareness of risk. Perhaps the most important component, however, is resilience. Studies have shown that while resilient people feel the same level of frustration and anxiety as others, they tend to let go of negativity and worry, quickly shifting their focus to a field of possibilities that pessimists fail to see. Why? Because negative emotions put us in defence mode, programming our brains to narrow the choices around us.
“Optimists tend to persevere even when it seems like the whole world is against them,” says Fox, author of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain. “Whereas pessimists have a sense of ‘things happen and there’s not much we can do about it’, optimists not only believe they can influence what goes on around them but will bounce back quicker and try out lots of different things.
“When Thomas Edison was trying to invent an electric lamp, for example, he was looking through the lab notes from his research team and said, ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ ”
Michael J Fox’s cognitive bias revealed a strong predilection towards noticing the positive and avoiding the negative – a result that made perfect sense. Despite a diagnosis of Parkinson’s at the age of 29, he held an underlying belief that whatever happened, he’d be able to deal with it. In time, he allowed Parkinson’s to lead him in another direction, raising millions every year to fund research into the disease. Yet a test of his DNA suggested that, rather than having any “optimist gene”, the actor’s life experiences had triggered a series of epigenetic effects that shaped his brain circuitry, establishing a certain world view.
Fortunately, the part of our brain responsible for our outlook is also the most malleable.
Developing strength in a specific pathway can mean the difference between thriving in life or suffering from depression and anxiety. All it takes to alter that neuroplasticity is persistent effort. That could include approaching challenges without fear, focusing on an aspect of your work that feels fulfilling, surrounding yourself with positive people or learning not to dwell on situations beyond your control.
“Brain training is like getting physically fit: you need to stick with it regularly,” says Fox. “There is no instant solution. It’s about trying to notice the positive things around you and challenging negative beliefs.
“Someone might think, I’m not clever enough to get that job, or, I’m not going to pass my Leaving Cert. But a lot of the time you’ll find there’s no real grounding for those beliefs. The reason optimism is shown to bring health benefits and success in business is because you’re trying lots of different things, developing goals and not getting knocked back so easily.”
People across Ireland have been learning to harness positivity through an interactive online course entitled Teaching Hope and Optimism, by ICEP (Institute of Child Education and Psychology) Europe, a research and training institute in Maynooth. Anyone can take the course, although it primarily serves teachers, counsellors and volunteers who wish to impart a more positive outlook to others. It covers the importance of not personalising failure, the ability to accurately identify the cause of our problems, as well as the practice of mindfulness, which has been shown to strengthen the frontal cortex, improving our capacity to deal with stress.
Máire Ní Luasaigh teaches at St Joseph’s National School, in Cork, and took the course because she feels that instilling her pupils with the skills to navigate life’s challenges is as important as numeracy and literacy. “I think in Ireland we may be a little bit gloomy in our outlook. In some ways, it’s protectionism, in that we often take the worst-case scenario and then anything else is a bonus. I think we need to change that.”
Children are increasingly absorbing stresses from home and bringing them to school, she says, which puts teachers in a privileged position to do something about it.
“When I think back to my own childhood, I remember knowing something was wrong but not being able to verbalise it: I didn’t feel in control. I think it’s important to empower children by teaching them that they have choices and that, while there are stresses and problems, there are ways around them.”
Ní Luasaigh’s pupils are encouraged to keep a gratitude journal, honing the ability to see positives by noting little things that went right that day.
They’re also given an opportunity to discuss their ambitions, no matter how far-fetched, by coming up with pathways to attain those goals and rehearsing steps to take in case of unexpected obstacles.
Brian Rahill, the administration principal at Killinkere National School, in Cavan, would not have considered himself an optimist before taking the course. “I have my days, like most people,” he says with a laugh. But since learning to take stock of things with a broader perspective, Rahill feels better equipped him to tackle the academic year. “There’s so much negativity in the general population at the moment and I feel some of it is transmitting to children. More and more of my time is spent in pastoral care, dealing with kids who put such a negative spin on things that they don’t seem to see the bigger picture.”
One memorable lesson that Rahill took from the course is that our inner voice is like a radio broadcast streaming through the brain. By tuning that frequency towards the positive – through simple things like self-awareness and a sense of connectivity – it can spread to others.
“I remember doing one of the exercises just after coming off a golf course and realising, Jaysus, anyone who has played golf will know that negative thoughts are self-fulfilling. If you think you’re not going to hit that green, you can be damn sure you’ll be lucky to even hit the ball!”
The study of optimism stems from a confluence of science and wisdom, says Dr Deirde MacIntyre, cofounder of ICEP Europe. Traditionally, the structure provided by various communities and religious practices helped to scaffold us emotionally. But since scientists have been examining the constituent elements of resilience, it’s easier to identify the types of practices and interventions that allow people to survive hardship and trauma.
Developing your mental fitness is as straightforward as adopting a healthier diet, she says.
“We all need tools to combat the onslaught of negativity. Things can and do go wrong, but it’s important to realise that you have a choice about how you feel – that your thought process determines your emotional reaction.
“As Shakespeare wrote, ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ Being the architect of your own resilience doesn’t just mean bouncing back from difficult times but bouncing forward and seeing opportunities.”
See rainybrainsunnybrain.com/bbc- horizon for an optimism test or “cognitive bias modification”. See icepe.ie to enrol in the Teaching Hope and Optimism course
HOW TO THINK YOURSELF INTO A BETTER MOOD
We are the curators of our mood. Even if it feels as if negative thoughts won’t stop appearing, you can choose not to dwell on them. Writing down thoughts can help to identify negative messages you give yourself.
Classic pessimistic assumptions like “good things happen to other people” and “this always happen to me” have no grounding in reality. Once you’ve learned to recognise those patterns, they can be challenged and overruled until the process become automatic.
Fake it until you make it
When you feel sad, your brain transmits an impulse and your facial muscles respond accordingly. But this is a two-way communication. Smiling and laughing when you feel down sends a message back the other way, prompting the brain to shift into a more positive mood.
Taking a daily inventory of positive and negative events is a good exercise in broadening perspective. It won’t take long before the list of positives, no matter how insignificant they seem, grows longer and frames an improved attitude.
Taking stock of setbacks has its advantages too: people who take meaning from hardship have been shown to be healthier in the long term.
The next time you succeed at something, analyse your interpretation of what happened. Are you giving yourself due credit? Pessimists tend to shrug off fortune as a one-off fluke that had little to do with them. Optimists interpret victory not only as something they were responsible for, but a long-lasting spur that can help them in every circumstance. This is where recognising your strengths becomes vital.
It can be tempting to think that one failed attempt at something is proof of our inadequacy, or even to stop trying things because we don’t feel good enough. But what makes all the difference is whether you attribute failure to something temporary (effort levels, bad luck, circumstances) or permanent (natural ability). If you know that you have succeeded in the past, you can instil the confidence to look beyond a current setback and keep going. This attitude not only makes us try harder but helps to reduce stress and anxiety.
SAVED BY A POSITIVE ATTITUDE – AND LOVE
When Bryna Kranzler sifted through her grandfather’s diaries, she was struck by how his humour and optimism kept him alive during unimaginable hardship. As a Jewish army officer at a time of great anti-Semitism, Jacob Marateck fought through the Russo- Japanese War, escaped three death sentences and survived exile in a Siberian labour camp.
At his lowest ebb, suicide seemed a rational decision, when his comrades were bleeding, freezing or starving as bombs exploded around them. But once he’d been dissuaded by friends from taking his life, he displayed all the hallmarks of a resilient optimist: a sense of purpose, perseverance, self-reliance and equanimity.
“He kept his optimism partly through having such a strong connection to his family and not wanting to hurt them, even though they’d been (falsely) notified of his death repeatedly,” says Kranzler. “Friendship was also important because they used to joke themselves out of the horror of their circumstances. And since several people attached their own survival to my grandfather’s during the war, he had to find inner strength. The fact that he came so close to being executed several times only for something miraculous to happen probably helped him to survive the next ordeal and the next one.”
After adapting two decades’ worth of her grandfather’s journals into the book The Accidental Anarchist, Kranzler realised that something didn’t add up. “I was going through a difficult time and when I saw how my grandfather managed to find so much strength during all he went through, I found myself struggling with difficulties that were nowhere near comparable – and yet somehow I couldn’t tap into that optimism.”
A breakthrough struck when Kranzler read an article about post-traumatic growth: cases of people plummeting into hopelessness only to discover a determination to persevere. Although that summer’s blockbuster movies seemed to further the same paradigm – figures reinventing themselves as superheroes after having their world torn apart – it was through the value of “ordinary magic” that Kranzler found change.
She realised how many positive events pass us by every day; simple things deemed unworthy of attention. It’s easier to remember someone stealing your parking space, for example, than someone letting you into traffic. Developing this awareness helped Kranzler tune into the same mindset her grandfather cultivated.
Without that optimism, he wouldn’t have dropped a note on the street while being led to prison for execution – a note found by a young girl who alerted his family in time to intervene.
The same optimism propelled him through an almost 5,000km escape from Siberia, with no money or documents, before attempting to find the girl who saved him, piecing together clues about her identity from faded memories. And it was optimism that, despite the warnings of others, allowed him to persist in courting her until she became his wife – the grandmother after whom Kranzler is named.
“Being aware of what’s going right has a way of bringing positive events in your direction,” says Kranzler. “Some people learn to tap into that ability while others never need to. It’s not always easy to find, but everybody has it.”