Thinking optimistically is the latest personality trait an MRI scanner can reveal, according to a new study.
Optimism is typically defined as a tendency to have positive expectations about the future. And even though researchers have been studying this cheery trait for decades, its neurobiological basis has largely remained a mystery.
And this is a major gap, because behaving optimistically plays an important role in people’s physical and psychological health. For example, previous research has shown that being optimistic isn’t just a state of mind. Optimistic people have longer life spans and handle stress better.
They also perform better at work, have broader social networks, and experience greater overall life satisfaction.
Likewise, less optimistic people experience more loneliness, higher risks of psychiatric disorders, and slower recovery rates after surgery.
The trait of behaving and thinking optimistically resides in the brain
And that’s why identifying the links between optimism and the brain will help create more positive health outcomes. With this in mind, researchers in China and Hong Kong recently conducted a study to map out these connections.
Their study involved giving MRI scans to 231 Chinese adolescents aged between 16 and 20. The participants were about evenly split between men and women. To measure their optimism, the subjects filled in a questionnaire called the Revised Life Orientation Test (LOT-R). It asks subjects to indicate how strongly they agree with statements such as “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best.”
The researchers also measured the subjects’ Big Five personality scores, IQ, and socioeconomic status.
Results: the key role of the putamen
Their analysis showed a significant positive correlation (r = 0.7) between optimism and the density of the putamen. This is a round structure located at the front of the brain.
There were no associations between thinking optimistically and the other measured qualities. These included age, IQ, socioeconomic status, gender, or any of the Big 5 personality traits except for extroversion.
The strong association with extroversion (r = .31), was expected. Indeed, much previous evidence has show that extroversion is an important factor in optimism. The researchers also found that extroversion accounted for most (but not all) of the association with putamen density.
This finding fits well with previous results showing that a diminished putamen structure is common in psychiatric disorders related to low optimism, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Likewise, other studies have shown that the putamen plays a key role in anticipating rewards, and taking action to get those rewards. This may be because people with greater putamen density consider future events to be more rewarding based on their past experience.
Interventions to make thinking optimistically second nature
This is the first study to look specifically at optimism’s links to brain structure in adolescents. Researchers are increasingly recognizing the role that optimism plays in adolescent health (such as a lower risk of physical and mental disease) as well as developmental outcomes (like higher subjective well-being).
This research will help scientists design interventions aimed at improving optimism levels, especially among adolescents. Increasing optimism, so goes the thinking, will help increase adolescents’ quality of life, and minimize the health risks associated with low optimism.
The study is also an important contribution to the growing field of psychoradiology, which explores abnormal brain changes in psychiatric disorders, and offers help in deciding how to treat those disorders.
Study: “Neurostructural correlates of optimism: Gray matter density in the putamen predicts dispositional optimism in late adolescence” (doi.org/10.1002/hbm.24888)
Authors: Han Lai, Song Wang, Yajun Zhao, Chen Qiu, Qiyong Gong
Published in: Human Brain Mapping, December 2019
Photo: by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Five benefits of thinking optimistically
1. You’ll feel more positive about yourself
Research has found that people who behave optimistically are often seen as more socially desirable, and are thus more likely to have more friends and more success at work.
Because a lack of optimism can often be associated with anxiety and low self-esteem, being optimistic actually helps people become happier.
2. It can improve your self-confidence
As well as helping you to feel happier, optimistic people are also generally better at spotting opportunities for personal growth. Research has shown that optimistic people are more likely to seek out new experiences, are more open to new ideas, and are more resilient to setbacks and disappointments.
They also tend to gain more satisfaction from everyday activities, experience less stress, and display more resilience to bad moods.
3. It can help your health
Optimistic people are also generally more physically healthy, and have a lower risk of a range of medical conditions. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and depression.
That is because optimists tend to have healthier lifestyle habits, which can improve their overall health. For example, they tend to be more physically active, eat a balanced diet, consume less alcohol, and have healthier diets overall.
Also, one of the primary benefits of being optimistic is the production of endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s “feel good” chemicals. They’re neurotransmitters that the brain produces, and influence people’s moods. Being optimistic helps your brain release more endorphins.
4. It will make you better at your job
Optimists are less likely to suffer from negative thinking or procrastination, meaning they are more motivated to tackle challenges and complete tasks, which can boost their professional success.
5. It can help you stay positive in the face of adversity
Optimists tend to have more positive outlooks on life, more empathy towards others, and less fear of risk and insecurity.
Optimism can improve your self-worth, and so it may be particularly useful for a range of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
So next time you feel low, choose optimism over pessimism. A positive outlook will help you to find solutions to problems, overcome adversity, and even make life better for others.