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IS THE GLASS HALF EMPTY OR HALF FULL?If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.”Once upon a time there was a psychiatrist who worked in a clinic in a small town. One day he gets a newpatient who is very sad and cannot laugh. The psychiatrist calls it depression and tries to treat the patientwith psychotherapy and medications. Many months go by, but the patient does not get better. One daythe frustrated psychiatrist says to the patient; “you know what, I know what will make you laugh. There iscircus in town and in that circus there is a clown. I am convinced that if you would go and see this clownyou will laugh”. “No, I won’t”, replied the patient. “How do you know”, asked the psychiatrist, “have youseen him?”. The patient looked at him, lowered his eyes and said: “I am that clown”.Human beings come in two flavors: optimists and pessimists. Pessimism is a state of mind in which oneperceives life negatively. Value judgments may vary dramatically between individuals, even whenjudgments of fact are undisputed. The most common example of this phenomenon is the "Is the glass halfempty or half full?" situation.Martin Seligman from University of Pennsylvania studied the nature of the relationship between optimismand good health. He says that it might be that, optimists, as opposed to pessimists, are more likely to takecare of their health because they believe in the potential positive outcomes. Or, it could be that optimisticpeople are more likeable and build better social networks, which have been associated with longevity.Another possibility is that optimistic people may have had less trauma or difficulty in their lives (a highnumber of negative events in a lifetime correlates with bad health). "All of these are plausible," saysSeligman.Take the example of two middle-aged men - one an optimist, the other a pessimist - who find themselvesin the ER following a heart attack. Other factors being equal, the optimist has a better chance of a fullrecovery, not because positive thinking itself changes his prognosis but because it leads to favorablechanges in his behavior. The pessimist feels resigned. But the optimist is more likely to stop smoking,avoid fatty foods and salt, engage in moderate exercise and avoid stress-inducing situations. Its thischange in his actions - not the sunny outlook itself - that improves his chances.We humans tend to be an optimistic bunch. In fact, its long been established by psychologists that mostpeople tend to be irrationally positive. The optimism bias, as its called, accounts for the fact that weexpect to live longer and be more successful than the average and we tend to underestimate thelikelihood of getting a serious disease. Neuroscientist Tali Sharot writes in The Optimism Bias: A Tour ofthe Irrationally Positive Brain, "The data clearly shows that most people overestimate their prospects forprofessional achievement; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; miscalculate their likely lifespan (sometimes by twenty years or more); expect to be healthier than the average person and moresuccessful than their peers; hugely underestimate the likelihood of divorce, cancer and unemployment;and are confident overall that their future lives will be better than those their parents put up with. This isknown as the optimism bias - the inclination to overestimate the likelihood of encountering positive eventsin the future and to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events."Studies show that pessimism promotes passivity and hopelessness. Research by psychologist MartinSeligman demonstrates that pessimists often behave helplessly, harming their chances of achievingdesirable results and even feeding depression .Winston Churchill said, "For myself, I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anythingelse." On the other hand, Arthur Schopenhauers pessimism comes from his elevatingof Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behavior. Schopenhauer pointed to
motivators such as hunger, sexuality, the need to care for children, and the need for shelter and personalsecurity as the real sources of human motivation. In one metaphor, Schopenhauer compares the humanintellect to a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulder of the blind giant of Will.The disparity between optimistic and pessimistic minds is especially prominent in areas of the brain thathave been linked to depression. "The same areas that malfunction in depression are very active whenpeople think about positive events," says Tali Sharot who conducted this research at New YorkUniversity.In the study, Sharot had subjects think about emotional events, both positive and negative, like winningan award or ending a romantic relationship. They did this for past events and those that could plausiblyoccur in the future, while their brains were being scanned in a fMRI. Afterwards, subjects filled out aquestionnaire that measured their level of optimism. What Sharot found was that when participantsthought about positive future events, two regions of the brain became much more active than when theythought about negative events.One of those areas (the rostral anterior cingulated) was linked to optimism with such consistency that itsurprised Sharot. "You can see it in all the subjects, indicating that its probably very fundamental tohuman nature," she says. "Optimism is mediated in some very strong way in the brain."Optimism doesnt mean we turn a blind eye to negative circumstances - or we neverentertain darker thoughts. But, more than we realize, our expectations influence both ourperception of reality and our actions - and so alter reality itself.There is a huge payoff in seeing gray skies as just passing clouds. Optimists expect to havemeaningful relationships, good health and happy, productive lives. They live longer, makebetter financial plans, and despair and worry less. They avoid needless anxiety and adjustbetter to stress.Optimism is a source of vitality and hope, courage and confidence. It motivates us to setgoals, to take risks. It encourages persistence in the face of obstacles.Last year UCLA researchers discovered a gene linked to optimism. Shelly E. Taylor and her colleaguesidentified the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR). Oxytocin is a hormone that increases in response to stressand is associated with good social skills such as empathy and enjoying the company of others."This study is, to the best of our knowledge, the first to report a gene associated with psychologicalresources," said lead study author Shimon Saphire-Bernstein, a doctoral student in psychology in Taylorslaboratory. "However, we wanted to go further and see if psychological resources explain why the OXTRgene is tied to depressive symptoms. We found that the effect of OXTR on depressive symptoms wasfully explained by psychological resources."At a particular location, the oxytocin receptor gene has two versions: an "A" (adenine) variant and a "G"(guanine) variant. Several studies have suggested that people with at least one "A" variant have anincreased sensitivity to stress, poorer social skills and worse mental health outcomes.http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/ucla-life-scientists-discover-215259.aspx