Optimistic in Bhutan

Half empty or half full? Optimism can be learned

“Realistic optimism” helps build personal resilience (see my September 17 post). But in these times, optimism can be as difficult as it is necessary—and more difficult for some people than others. The good news: researchers are learning how the negativists among us can train to be more optimistic . . . and presumably how optimists can become even more insufferable.

The notion that changing your mind can change your life is certainly not new. Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking was first published in 1952, and it’s now known that there’s a ring around Saturn composed entirely of New Age literature on the subject. But researchers are beginning to really understand how we’re wired and how to work with it—meaning change is increasingly within reach.

An optimism app may be on the way (seriously). But in the meantime, we have the power of self-awareness.

We’re all negativists

The first thing to realize it that all of our brains are somewhat biased toward the negative. It’s an evolutionary imperative: someone attuned to threats is going to live longer than someone who isn’t. It’s telling that, according to linguists, half of the words in any given language are negative, and only 30 percent positive; the rest are neutral. And research shows that we’re more likely to register negative words, even subliminally (as a copywriter, I keep this in mind).

Back when I was a reporter, some parents complained to me that I covered only the negative things happening in the school system. I was striving for balance, but could it be true? I pulled out my school file and made two piles of clips, negative and positive. The piles were almost exactly even. I was reporting just as much good news as bad, but it was the bad that got noticed.

But some of us make a real habit of it

Being attuned to threats—grizzly bears, distracted drivers—is of course good. But it’s clear that some of us are unduly negative. As Elaine Fox writes in Scientific American Mind (January/February 2013), “Through some combination of genetics and personal experiences, we develop a habit of seeing the proverbial glass as either half full or half empty. That frame of mind in turn alters our resilience to adversity, for better or worse.” It’s thought that subconscious “half empty” biases are one reason why emotional disorders like depression are so hard to shake.

What do you pay attention to?

Research shows that we unconsciously hone in on the negative or the positive—whichever is our tendency or habit.

In one study, Fox writes, people were presented with two facial expressions on a screen, one hostile and one smiling. They were asked to watch for a letter and to press a button when it popped up. Over hundreds of trials, people known to be “emotionally vulnerable” reacted faster when the letter appeared near the hostile face—the one they automatically focused on. Resilient people reacted faster when it appeared near the smiling face.

What does this look like in the real world? Fox’s example: A socially anxious person giving a speech might focus on the single bored face in the crowd, ignoring the vast majority of rapt listeners—that is, ignoring reality.

How do you interpret events?

Once you notice something, how do you interpret it? Some of us tend to interpret ambiguous events as negative, when we could just as easily interpret them as neutral or positive. Say, for example, you don’t hear from an old friend for months. Obviously, she found someone she likes better. . . Or maybe she got a big assignment and is super busy learning and making tons of money!

Homophones can be used to see which way someone’s mind tends to go. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different spellings. Upon hearing such words as pain/pane and die/dye, Fox writes, people who rate high for anxiety are more likely than others to write down the negative word.

This is your life!

The consequences of negative attention and interpretation could go way beyond your daily happiness and ability to cope with stress. Think about it: what you pay attention to will be what you store in memory. And thus your entire life may take on a dark tone, when it might just as well be a bright, beautiful thing to look back on.

How do you change?

An emerging field called cognitive-bias modification (CBM) is concerned with countering negative attention and interpretation.

One research team trained students to either notice or tune out threatening words, for example cancer or rape. Remember the task I described above, in which the letters popped up on the faces? Here, for half the students, the letter always popped up on a negative word, and for the other half, a neutral word. The students then underwent a mildly stressful test. Those trained to notice the threatening word reported more stress than those who trained to notice the neutral one.

The implication is that if you practice attending to the positive, you can change how you react to real-life situations for the better.

“Interpretational style” can also be modified. One researcher presented people with ambiguous scenarios and had them rehearse either negative or positive outcomes. One scenario: You’re going caving, and you’re a bit nervous about enclosed spaces. Deep inside the cave, you realize that you have completely lost your_______.

You could finish the sentence with a negative outcome, such as “way,” or with a positive one such as “fear.” People who rehearsed positive outcomes to such scenarios reported less anxiety and demonstrated less stress when asked to watch video clips of accidents the next day.

An optimism app?

“One particularly appealing angle of this new therapeutic approach,” Fox writes, is the ease with which it can be delivered on computers, smartphones or tablets. A person could visit his therapist . . . and leave with a tailor-made CBM intervention on his mobile device. . . . Healthy people, too, might use these techniques to boost a more resilient frame of mind so they can flourish, rather than simply getting by.”

While we wait for the app, simple awareness coupled with mental self-correction is probably a good start. Is your attention biased? Put the people who think you’re stellar in the front row of your mind. Is your interpretation biased? Go in that cave and lose your fear.


This post draws heavily from Scientific American Mind, available by subscription only. See Elaine Fox, “The Essence of Optimism,” Scientific American Mind, January/February 2013, pp. 22-27. Fox is author of Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.


(Photo courtesy of Steve Evans from Citizen of the World—Bhutan—via Wikimedia Commons)

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