Accentuating a Positive Attitude

Last Editorial Review: 3/4/2008

Can pessimists learn to see the glass half full?

By Susan Kuchinskas
WebMD Medical News

Reviewed By Patricia A. Farrell, PhD

Danny Worrel paid in advance to have a load of firewood delivered. It was a handshake deal, but as the guy drove off, Worrel, a 57-year-old building engineer in Coupeville, Wash., said, "I just lost $150." He was sure the woodsman would take off with the cash and never deliver. (Of course, the firewood promptly arrived.)

This pessimistic outlook is typical of the 50% of Americans who assume things are always getting worse.

Pessimists habitually explain the events in their lives in a way that makes them seem dire. They tend to blame themselves, while assuming that whatever went wrong will stay wrong—and bring everything else down with it.

Optimists, on the other hand, seem to approach life in a way that pays off. They're more resilient in the face of disaster or tragedy and are happier with their lives in general. But it's not all in their heads. They are generally healthier, have stronger hearts, and tend to live longer. They're even more resistant to colds.

One reason is because optimists learn to cope well and make connections with others who help and support, says Barbara Fredrickson, head of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina. "You're better equipped to deal with the difficulties in life because, in the good moments, you've accrued more skills and resources," she explains.

How the brain functions seems to play a role, too. Enthusiastic people have more activity in the left prefrontal lobes of their brains, while those with more active right prefrontal lobes tend to get stuck in negative emotions. The rostral anterior cingulate cortex may be significant: One brain imaging study found that, when asked to think about future positive events, the more optimistically inclined had higher activity in this region, which is located along the midline of the brain and seems to play a role in moderating emotional reactions. Malfunctions in this area can cause depression or anxiety.

Worrel now uses a technique called "cognitive restructuring." Instead of sinking into pessimism, he asks himself whether any rational basis exists for a negative thought. If not, he forgets about it. He says, "I've realized we have control over whether that glass is half empty or half full."

How to Be More Positive

Our brains are not hardwired for optimism or pessimism, so you can learn to accentuate the positive. Here's how:

  • Learn to meditate. An eight-week program of daily mindfulness meditation—trying to stay in the moment without distracting thoughts—increased activation of the left prefrontal lobe in study subjects.
  • Think in threes. Approximately three positive moments are needed to counteract one negative one, according to Fredrickson. So volunteer, listen to music you like, or pet a puppy.
  • Write it down. Martin Seligman, the psychologist who authored the book Authentic Happiness, suggests you create a journal. Every night, write down three good things that happened that day—and include an explanation for why each happened.

Originally published in the March/April 2008 issue of WebMD the Magazine.

SOURCES: Danny Worrel, Coupeville, Wash. Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, psychology professor; director, Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Gallup poll. Michalos, A. Essays on the Quality of Life, Springer 2003. Maruta, T. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, February2000; vol75: pp 140-143. Puri, M. Journal of Financial Economics, October 2007; vol 86: pp 71-99. Frederickson, B. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 2003; vol 84: 365-376. Giltay, E. Archives of General Psychiatry, November 2004; vol 61: pp 1126-1135. Cohen, S. Psychosomatic Medicine, Nov. 13, 2006; early online edition. Facts of Life: Issue Briefings for Health Reporters, Center for the Advancement of Health: "'Happy' Brains in Healthy Bodies," September 1998; vol 3. Riccardi, S. Nature, Oct. 24, 2007; early online edition. Bissiere, S. Behavioural Brain Research, November 2006; vol 175: pp 195-199. Heimberg, R. Biological Psychiatry Jan. 1, 2002; vol 51: pp 101-108. Martin, E. American Psychologist, July/August 2005; vol 60: pp 410-421. Davidson, R. Psychosomatic Medicine, July/August 2003; vol 65: pp 564-570.

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