Why Are Some People More Positive Than Others?


Findings from this study suggest that directing our thoughts of the future toward the positive is a result of our frontal cortex communicating with subcortical regions deep in our brain. The frontal cortex, a large area behind the forehead, is the most evolved part of the brain and involved in many complex and higher functions such as judgment, decision-making, language, and goal-setting.

Two of these subcortical and critical regions of the brain include the amygdala, a small structure deep in the brain that is central to the processing of emotion, and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), an area of the frontal that modulates emotion and motivation. The rACC acts like a traffic conductor, enhancing the flow of positive emotions and associations. The more optimistic a person is, the higher the activity in these regions are while imagining positive future events, and the stronger the connectivity between the two structures.

Phelps and Sharot note that these findings stay constant in the brains of healthy individuals. However, the opposite appears true for people suffering from depression. Individuals with severe and even mild depression tend to be pessimistically biased when imaging the future. Additionally, fMRI scans of these individuals showed decreased activity in their amygdala and the rACC. Unlike optimists, who tend to expect the future to be better than reality, people with depression tend to be expect things to be worse than they end up being. “In contrast, people with only mild depression are relatively unbiased when predicting future events,” explains Sharot. “They tend to rationally see the world as it is, in all of its flaws, and temper their optimism to fit.”

Research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences challenged these results and asked subjects to rate their past, present, and anticipated future of life satisfaction. They found that people, in general, typically rate their lives at the present as more satisfying than the past, and their lives in the future are expected to be even more satisfying than the present. According to researchers, the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that optimists simply see things as getting increasingly better and better over time; pessimists may assume that since today is bad, tomorrow, the immediate future, must be better.

If it’s in our best interest to prepare for the worst, why are our brains wired against this — to expect the best? Many speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. We venture out, take risks, and hope those risks result in successful outcomes. Can you imagine where we’d be if everyone were afraid to leave their homes? Furthermore, research still agrees that optimists live longer and are healthier due to less stress and anxiety.

So, the question begs, how do we keep the faith while at the same time avoiding life’s pitfalls? The key is to find a balance; to be aware of the odds of calamity and act to protect ourselves against unwanted outcomes. “The good news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusions,” says Sharot. “The glass still remains half full.” The bottom line is this: Stay optimistic, cover your bases, buy insurance, and pack an umbrella, because you never know.

Optimism: Nature vs. Nurture

The popular conception of optimism is that it is the blended outcome of both nature and nurture. In fact, UCLA researchers Shelley E. Taylor and Shimon Saphire-Bernstein have identified a particular gene — oxytocin receptor gene, or OXTR — that is linked to optimism, self-esteem, and mastery, the belief that one has control over one’s own life. Oxytocin is a hormone that increases in response to stress and is associated with empathy, bonding, and social recognition.

Taylor completed self-assessments of 326 participants, measuring optimism, self-esteem, and mastery. They also obtained DNA from participants’ saliva tests. Using UCLA’s genotyping center, researchers analyzed the DNA to find variations in the OXTR gene. As reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found that people who had one or two copies of the OXTR gene with an A (adenine) allele at a particular location tended to have more negative measurements than those with two copies of the G (guanine) allele. People with an A allele were less optimistic, had lower self-esteem and felt less personal mastery than people with two G alleles. In addition, the A allele was linked to higher levels of depressive symptoms.

While this suggests that optimism is a direct result of our genetic makeup, it isn’t entirely the case. “This gene is one factor that influences psychological resources,” says Taylor. “But there is plenty of room for environmental factors as well.” Our past experiences and their outcomes do play a role in our optimistic expectations. Furthermore, there is the belief that optimism is the result of social interaction, that it is considered to be “socially contagious.” In a survey, focus-group participants identified contagious optimists as being radiators of good feelings, while pessimists were seen as being draining.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2012 issue.

More From Brain World

You May Also Like

Time in a Bottle: The Mystery of Déjà Vu
Beyond The Books: 6 Tips For Improving Learning and Memory

Sponsored Link

About Us

A magazine dedicated to the brain.

We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

Education and Training

Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to our newsletter below and never miss the news.

Stay Connected