9:18am Monday 18th June 2012
By Louise Howeson
BETWEEN the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll. The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist the hole.
Oscar Wilde got it spot on with this nugget of wisdom - but how do we know whether we truly look on the bright or not?
According to latest research being an optimistic or pessimistic may be rooted in our genes and hardwired into our brains.
Professor Elaine Fox, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex in Colchester, has been looking into this area of research for over 20 years.Her book, Rainy Brain Sunny Brain, published this month, looks into research that some people have a gene that makes them have a tendency to be optimistic and be more emotionally resilient.
The gene itself controls serotonin, the brain's main feelgood chemical. Each of us inherits two versions of the gene, either two short ones, two long ones, or one of each.
People who have two longs versions were most likely to focus on the positives, according to the study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
On the bright side, Professor Fox also looks into how we all have the capacity to change the way we think and make ourselves more optimistic.
I went along to the university to with meet Professor Fox and to take a cognitive bias test to see if my brain is naturally drawn to positive or negative things.
Now, I’m no Pollyanna but I do think that overall I generally veer towards being optimistic.
Of course I have my down days, which usually involve a dressing gown, red wine and re-watching any sad films I can get my mitts on. But these are fairly few and far between.
So how would Professor Fox define a optimist?
She says: “Optimism is so much more than just having a ‘sunny side up’ attitude. It has many factors. One of them is people believing you have control over your environment - whether it is an illusion or not.
“Optimists tend to be persistent and willing to try harder to get something and so they usually succeed.”
And a pessimist?
She says: “A pessimist will tend to give up on things more easily and they pick out the negative things in situations. When recalling memories of events they will tend to remember the negative aspects.
“It would be quite naive to go through life just avoiding the negative and the best state of mind is to have a positive outlook but also be realistic about things.”
People without the optimistic gene can be prone to more health conditions.
She says: “Previous studies have shown that people who do not have the gene and have also had more than three negative life experiences are more prone to anxiety and depression - whereas people with the gene are not.”
After speaking to Professor Fox I sat down to take the 30 minute cognitive test to find out whether my brain was drawn to negative or positive images.
The results were interesting.
Professor Fox says: “The cognitive bias test results showed that you are in tune with the positive in general, but are faster to notice to angry people rather than happy people.
“This is a typical finding and, of course, is very sensible! So in terms of your attentional bias, you show a heightened vigilance - or bias - for the positive.”
Hurray! I feel unexpectedly relieved with the news - partly because the test works on a subconsciously level and I didn’t want my brain to let me down.
However, Professor Fox explains that our fate does not solely lie in our genes and how our brains are wired.
She concludes treatment like cognitive behavioural therapy and attention retraining exercises can alter our brains’ circuitry, allowing lifelong pessimists to think more positively.
She says: “There are many things we can do to change the way they think. One way is a ‘count your blessings list’. Keep a diary throughout the day of things that have happened. Then look back to at your diary to see all the positive things that happened - meeting up with a friend, eating a nice chocolate bar etc.
“A pessimist may tend to think they had a bad day and would be surprised that there were a lot of good things. By doing this over and over again you create new pathways in your brain to think more positively - and literally change the way you think.”
For more information see:www.rainybrainsunnybrain.com.
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