The evolutionary origins of optimism

June 13, 2012 | Source: Salon

Rany Brain, Sunny Brain, by Elaine Fox

Positive feeling evolved to make us do critical tasks — but new findings suggest it can also help us live longer.

This article is an adapted excerpt from the new book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain from Basic Books.

The function of our pleasure system is to entice us into doing things that are biologically good for us. This is why delicious food, especially in the company of family and friends, is one of the great pleasures of life.

Because the experience of pleasure is fleeting, the pursuit of pleasure can all too easily spiral out of control, sometimes tipping into dangerous risk taking and addictions. But if kept under control, experiencing pleasure is the spark that strengthens the circuits and networks that make up the sunny brain.

And one of the great benefits of the sunny brain is the optimistic mindset it nurtures, which is not only about feeling joy and happiness, or even just about feeling good or thinking positively about the future, but also about sticking with tasks that are meaningful and beneficial. Our sunny-brain circuits help us to stay focused on the things that bring us rewards, and this keeps us engaged on important tasks.

This is a central insight, backed up by anatomical evidence, of how our sunny brain works. Optimism is about more than feeling good; it’s about being engaged with a meaningful life, developing resilience, and feeling in control. This dovetails nicely with psychological research showing that the benefits of optimism come from the ability to accept the good along with the bad, and being prepared to work creatively and persistently to get what you want out of life.

Optimistic realists, whom I consider to be the true optimists, don’t believe that good things will come if they simply think happy thoughts. Instead, they believe at a very deep level that they have some control over their own destinies.

What’s perhaps most surprising is just how optimistic we are. Survey after survey confirm that, even in the darkest moments, people are usually positive about the future.

What is the reason for such irrepressible optimism, especially in the face of so many global problems? The answer is both complex and intriguing. One part of the puzzle is that our brain is wired to ensure that we remain hopeful for the future. As we have seen, our sunny brain also plays an important role in keeping us engaged with ultimate rewards. Optimism is a crucial survival mechanism, honed by nature, to keep us going even when everything seems to be going wrong. Psychologists call this the optimism bias, and almost all of us have fallen prey to its appeal at some point.

While there has been much unsubstantiated hype, there are many scientific studies that suggest that a positive mindset, like optimism, is associated with better health and well-being. This is almost certainly due to the link between an optimistic mindset and beneficial actions rather than any magical power of thoughts. Most dramatic of all is the assertion that optimism can make us live longer.

Given optimists’ greater persistence, it comes as no surprise to find that optimism is also linked with success. In the business world, optimism is advantageous, since the ability to deal with failures is often required. This is why Thomas Edison, whose optimism was magnetic to those around him, constantly encouraged his workers to never give up. On one occasion, having realized that he had tried out more than 10,000 different ways to develop an electric lamp, he famously proclaimed: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Excerpted with permission from Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook by Elaine Fox. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.