The Science of Optimism

There is a 50% difference in the chance of having heart disease between optimists and pessimists, according to a 10 year long study from in the 1980’s. Research done in the fields of psychology and neuroscience have proven what many people and cultures have believed for thousands of years. There is a big advantage to being an Optimist. 

Optimists live longer, up to 20 years longer and they have less health problems. They have more meaningful and deeper personal relationships. They make better workers. According to many studies done on optimism and heart disease, there is a strong correlation between optimism and cardiovascular health. 

Being an optimist is very important for health and longevity. It’s just as important as diet or exercise. I’d work on optimism before diet and exercise. Optimists are more likely to follow through on things that are good for them. They are more likely to generate virtuous circles.

We know from research done in neuroscience that the feeling we describe as happiness comes from dopamine being released in the brain. There are many circumstances that result in a dopamine release. When we feel like things are constantly getting just a little better, when we maintain a glass-half-full attitude, even when the evidence says different, we get a steady release of dopamine. We also release dopamine when we manage our expectations. If we set out expectations too high and we fail, it crashes our dopamine, if we set them too low, it’s ok and doesn’t interfere. If we exceed our expectations we’ll get a strong release of dopamine.  

This is the virtuous cycle. Do something that we feel good about and our brain rewards us with a warm fuzzy. If we build optimism before we start forming other beneficial habits, we will reinforce and take advantage of your optimism pathways. When we feel good about ourselves and our achievements, we are more likely to go on to further achievements. We are more likely to take on new challenges. We are more likely to succeed.  

It turns out that another bit of folk wisdom has been proven by neuroscience research: Like attracts like. When we focus on what is going right, we see more of what’s going right. If we focus on the problems we will see more of what is wrong. We will also get more of what we focus on. If you have ever driven a motorcycle at night, then you know you can’t look to the edge of the road when going around a corner. If you do, your bike will start moving that way, if you don’t adjust your view, you might drive right off the road. 

I’ve been an optimist for most of my life. I’ve always believed that it was the best option for me. I’m very happy to have studies from different disciplines to back me up. All of these ideas work at home, at work, at school or in personal development. If you are a pessimist, I hope you’ll try to make the transition to being an optimist. It’s not something we’re born with. It’s a choice. You can and should choose to be an optimist! If you’d like to know more about how to do this I suggest reading Flourishing by Martin Seligman or Your Brain at Work, by David Rock.