I’ve always been a bit jealous of those natural optimists, seeing the world through their own sunshine-filled glasses (Credit card statement due? An opportunity to boost your credit score. Got lost driving? Now you now where that mall on the other side of town is.) Optimists maintain that (naively, if you ask us pessimists), despite the inevitable bumps in the road, life turns out pretty darn well most of the time.
Most of us know which category we generally fit in, and most of us have also read enough self-help magazine articles to know that optimism is the way to go?longer life, better health, you name it, they get it. But are we born this way?predestined to see that glass half-full and therefore predestined to lead happier, healthier lives? What if we’re genetically programmed to do the opposite? What can us glass-half-empties do?
Turns out, we are genetically determined toward the way we see that glass of milk. Studies have shown that people carrying a particular version of a gene are more likely to suffer from depression and attempted suicide when faced with traumatic events?in other words, they have a gene that biases them toward dwelling on negative events (so stop blaming your childhood!). This gene promotes the activity of another gene, whose protein product helps to transports serotonin, often referred to as the happy chemical. Serotonin affects many aspects of our behavior, including mood. Our genes?specifically the ones that regulate serotonin distribution around our bodies?play a role in our starry-eyed (or not-so-starry eyed) outlooks.
As with all genes, we’re born with two copies. Elaine Fox, head of the psychology department at the University of Essex in the UK, led a study on how variances in these genes play a role in how we process negative and positive material.
Her study asked approximately one hundred people to choose between two images?one with very positive or very negative connotations and the other neutral. They found that those with the optimistic genetics (more on that later) selected positive images over neutral, and, in a choice between a negative and a neutral, they actively avoided the negative.
Here’s the deal with the genes: There are long versions and short versions of these serotonin promoters, and this difference seems to be what causes our differences in outlook. Some of us have two long variations of the genes (one inherited from each parent). These prevent serotonin buildup between nerve cells, allowing for a freer flow of that happiness chemical. People with two longs are the born optimists, seeking out positive images and avoiding negative ones. Where pessimists are more prone to letting tough times get them down, optimists simply don’t soak up negativity in the same way.
Some of us have two short variants, or a long and a short. This means we have more serotonin buildup and less of that protective happiness floating around?these are the genetic pessimists. These variances genetically account for a biological difference in the way we internalize and interpret what the world throws at us.
Jamie Costello, a self-described pessimist, has seen these differences firsthand while growing up with her sister, a lifelong optimist. “We’ve been in the same situations over and over,” she says. “But whether it’s a death in the family, a college rejection, or a bad job interview, we both take in the situation really differently. I let it get me down for days and she’ll just move on.”
Does this mean us pessimists are doomed to life of serotonin-lacking negativity and that optimists’ sunshiny smiles will never crack our happiness-depleted shells? Not necessarily.
Show Those Genes Who’s Boss
Luckily, there’s more to seeing through rose-tinted glasses than a couple of measly genes. Being born on the bright side is a lucky draw from the genetic card deck (sort of like dodging Dad’s flat feet), but studies show that the benefits intertwined with the tendency to look on the bright side come from optimists’ resilience to stress?regardless of whether it comes from nature or our own tireless nurture. Those of us with short variants of the gene are likely to take things a little harder, but our attitudes are more than just an inheritance.
In fact, attitude is a complex blend of psychology, biology, and common sense, say researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. We can cultivate a positive outlook, whether we’re born with it or not, and learn how to avoid dwelling on difficulties. The optimistic folks at UPenn (I’ll give you one guess as to which gene variant they have), maintain that the thinking habits people learn are much more important than the genetics they inherit.
“Optimistic thinking is an action, like practicing the piano or going on a run, that can be repeated and learned,” says Marcia Feingold, a New York City life coach. “If you teach kids to react and understand situations in a proactive way, you train their brains to do that for life.”
And just because you’re slightly beyond your kid years doesn’t mean that it’s too late.
Practice Makes Positive
The UPenn researchers wrote that optimists and pessimists have different explanatory styles, meaning they explain problems to themselves in very different ways. Trying the optimists’ method out is a way to start your retraining process.
Optimists see difficulties as being outside of themselves, non-permanent, and affecting only a minor part of their world. On the other hand, pessimists see problems as just the opposite: their own fault, enduring, and affecting most of their daily life.
To break this thought process, try out a “You can do it!” way of thinking next time you find yourself in a not-so-pleasant scenario. Got rejected when you asked for a raise? Plot out the steps you can take to successfully nab it next time around. Instead of dwelling on what you didn’t do, map out how you’ll get it in the future, then just let it go. That’s dealing proactively and?hey, you guessed it?an optimist’s approach to roadblocks.
Why Should You Care?
Maybe you’re happy with your gloomy self (being cynical is safer, right?), but there are some legitimate reasons why being an optimist is all that it’s cracked up to be. Optimists are likely to live happier, healthier lives with less illness, more success, and greater joy. Do any of us want much more?
If you do, here are a few more optimism-selling stats: medical studies show that pessimists are more likely to suffer complications during surgery, experience complications that persist for a longer period of time, and face a longer rate of recovery, short- and long-term.
I’ve decided that I’m going to try it, serotonin-depleted or not. Next time I do a presentation that flops or I see my 401(k) balance plummeting closer and closer to zero, I’m not going to decide that I’m a professional and financial failure. Instead, I’ll think like an optimist?plan to get better results next time and move on from the fleeting moment of negativity. Because genes or no genes, we all deserve to give ourselves a shot at happiness and success.
Originally written by Allie Firestone for DivineCaroline.com
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