July 11, 2013

How to become an optimist


By Michael Mosley
A FEW months ago I was wandering around my house in the early hours of the morning, cursing my insomnia. For lack of anything better to do I went to my computer and looked up research on "optimism". 
Why is it, I wondered, that I was once so positive about life and now I'm not? My father was warm, and sociable, but not particularly reflective. So should I blame my parents, my genes, or random events in my life? And is there anything I can do to change?

I was a happy child, but at some point in my life I drifted away from believing that tomorrow would be a better day to thinking that it probably wouldn't.

I can't pinpoint key moments or even likely causes. Perhaps it's happened because I'm married with four children, which means I feel responsible for four other lives, not just my own. Perhaps I'm just more realistic. Whatever the reasons, I am someone who frequently assumes the worst will happen and frets about the future.

This turn towards the dark side has become more noticeable as I have grown older. It makes me self-absorbed and keeps me from sleeping. I used to sleep like the dead. I slept on railway platforms, at parties, in a telephone box, even in a graveyard. Now I regularly wake at 3am and drift around my house, with insistent, anxious thoughts battling for attention.

So a few months ago I decided to try to do something about it. As a documentary maker with the BBC's Horizon program, I decided to explore the latest science of personality and attempt to make myself more optimistic. I didn't want to become optimistic in a wishful thinking, self-help sort of way; I wanted to rewire my brain in a measurable, evidence-based, realistic way.

As a pessimist, I naturally enough expected to fail. I certainly suspected that this was going to be one of the harder things I'd attempted. "Personality" is something we think of as both nebulous and fixed, hard to define, set in early childhood and not that susceptible to change. Optimism and pessimism are characteristics that I'd imagined would be difficult to alter because they are deep rooted.

As the psychologist and neuroscientist professor Elaine Fox of Oxford University points out in her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, the way we view the world changes how the world responds to us. She claims that whether we turn to the dark side or the light can be traced to patterns of activity in the brain and this reflects basic drives.

Like any other animal, we are primed optimistically to head out into the unknown in search of a mate and food. But we are also wired to anticipate danger. In a situation where your life is at risk, fearing the worst brings clear survival advantages.

In the modern world, however, being constantly on the lookout for things that might go wrong is more likely to lead to anxiety, insomnia and negative patterns of thinking. It can even shorten your life. There have been a number of studies that point to the effect of optimism on longevity. In 1975, for example, the inhabitants of the town of Oxford, Ohio, in the US Midwest, took part in a fascinating social experiment.

It started when a scientist from the local university came up with an ambitious plan to recruit all the over-50s in the town for a study into ageing. More than 1000 signed up. They filled in questionnaires about jobs, health, family and attitudes towards growing older. Decades later the data ended up in Yale University on the desk of associate professor Becca Levy. "What we did was to try and track down the survival patterns of everybody who was in the original study via something called the National Death Index," Levy says. "In fact, we did find mortality information about all the original participants."

When Levy went through the death records she found that those who felt optimistic about the future lived, on average, about 7 1/2 years longer than those who were more pessimistic. Mental attitude was more important than almost any other factor. This finding took into account possible reasons for pessimism, such as sickness or depression. Levy's work has been backed by other research.

To put her findings into context, if we could cure cancer tomorrow it would add half as much - three to four years - to life expectancy. But why should optimism have this effect? And what can you do if you're not naturally a happy soul?

I went to see Elaine Fox for advice and guidance. A cheerful optimist herself, for more than 20 years she has been studying ways that our health, wealth and wellbeing are shaped by how we view the world. She is particularly interested in studying how differences in our outlook can be traced to specific patterns of brain activity.

She started by asking me to don a cap fitted with numerous EEG (electroencephalographic) leads. "We're going to be measuring the electrical activity in your brain, and we're really just going to try and probe and see whether your brain naturally tunes into either positive or negative stuff," she said.

The first part of the test involved measuring the levels of electrical activity on the two sides of my brain while I was resting. Studies have shown that people who are prone to high levels of pessimism, neuroticism and anxiety tend to have greater activity on the right side of their frontal cortex than the left. The same pattern is seen in infants who are anxious and cry a lot, and in monkeys with high blood levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. This is known as cerebral asymmetry.

It turns out that I have three times more activity in my right frontal cortex than my left. Oh dear. I didn't know whether to feel gratified or appalled.

Then I did another test, still wearing the cap. I had to press a button whenever I saw dots flashing in a particular pattern behind faces on a computer screen. I was asked not to focus on the faces, just on the dots.

I didn't realise it, but the point is to test my unconscious negative bias to see if my brain's response time was influenced by whether the dots appeared behind angry or happy faces. It turns out my brain subconsciously reacts far more rapidly to negative images. With optimists the reverse is true.

After Fox had established that I am "on the negative side of the spectrum", she sent me off to try out two forms of mental training which she said would help: mindfulness meditation and cognitive bias modification.

But why, I wondered, are some people more optimistic than others? Is it simply upbringing or do other factors play a part? One of the places I went looking for answers was St Thomas' Hospital in London where for years professor Tim Spector has been running a research unit analysing and probing a special group of people: identical twins.

"Twin studies have told us that personality has a heritable component," Spector says. "And they tell us that, generally, 40 per cent to 50 per cent of personality, of the differences between us in personality, is due to genetic factors, and the rest is either random or due to environment."

As Spector also points out, what matters is not just the genes we are born with but whether they are active or not. Throughout our lives, in response to life events, our genes are constantly being switched on and off. It's a process known as epigenetics.

We've known for some time that stressful emotional events, such as a death or a separation, can trigger depression and anxiety. What we didn't know is that they also change the behaviour of our genes. In fact, by studying identical twins, where one is depressed or anxious and the other is not, Spector and his team have recently been able to identify a handful of genes that seem to play an important role in these conditions. In other words, a life event, or perhaps series of life events, appears to have made subtle changes to their genes, altering their protein output and therefore their biochemistry, making one of the twins more vulnerable to depression later in life.

This discovery raises the enticing possibility that if these genes have been switched one way, then maybe they can be switched back. The research also makes it clear our personalities aren't just something we were born with; there are many aspects of our selves that are being subtly shaped and modified throughout our lives.

After seven weeks of practising mindfulness and CBM, and numerous visits to other research labs, I felt my mood lifting. I had begun sleeping better and felt, perhaps, a little more optimistic. But had I changed my brain?

I went back to see Elaine Fox and we redid the tests. During my previous visit I had demonstrated far more activity in the right frontal cortex of my brain than the left, a striking indicator of pessimism. This time? Big improvement.

Next, I repeated the test with the faces to see if my reaction times had changed. Last time I was much quicker to hit the button when an angry face appeared. Would that still be true?
Again, there were significant changes.

Reflecting on my journey, I had started out wanting to worry less, sleep better and be more optimistic.

As I looked for answers I came across research that shines a surprising light on the mystery of what makes us who we are. I'm not yet a signed-up member of the Panglossian club and I still sometimes roam the house at night, but I have discovered that it's never too late to change your mind. And that, surely, is something worth being cheerful about.

What the author did
MINDFULNESS: In the morning I sit in a quiet place and focus on physical sensations, such as the weight of my body. Then I focus on my breath, allowing thoughts to drift in and out of my consciousness. I did this for 10 minutes, building up to 20.

COGNITIVE BIAS MODIFICATION: The exercise I tried involved looking at a screen that showed 15 blank or angry faces, and one smiley face. I had to spot the smiley face and click on it. Then a new set of faces appeared. The idea is to train your brain to look for positive images - this will generalise to everyday life. To try the faces test go to tinyurl.com/lv5njmn
QUIZ: Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Read the questions below and, using the A to E options, make a note of your response. Then go to the end to calculate your score.
Try not to let your response to one statement influence your responses to others: nothing is “correct” or “incorrect”.
Answer according to your own feelings, rather than how you think “most people” would answer.


1 In uncertain times, I usually expect the best
2 It’s easy for me to relax
3 If something can go wrong for me, it will
4 I’m always optimistic about my future
5 I enjoy my friends a lot
6 It’s important for me to keep busy
7 I hardly ever expect things to go my way
8 I don’t get upset too easily
9 I rarely count on good things happening to me
10 Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad

How to score
For questions 1, 4 and 10
give yourself a score of
A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, E=0;
For questions 3, 7 and 9,
A=0, B=1, C=2, D=3, E=4

Questions 2, 5, 6, and 8 are fillers, so don’t score. 

Most people score 15, which is mildly optimistic; 0 is profoundly pessimistic.

With many thanks to The Australian

Picture credits: Doblelol and Picture Quotes