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8 Aug 2013

Optimism Genetically Determined

Personality on SlateWe aren’t born blank slates; we come with personalities. These personalities, along with our bodies (more) and hormones influence our views, including views of optimism and pessimism. These are genetically determined (“Sunny Side Up” [The Economist, February 28, 2009 edition]) as Elaine Fox of Oxford Centre for Emotions and Affective Neuroscience (OCEAN) has shown.

Still, even as reviews of her book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook, reveal, determining what to do about this is tough. It violates the centuries’ notion that we have expansive free will (more), that we can simply “think” our way out of pessimism by regurgitating daily positive sayings.

If we approach this evolutionarily, we have to ask, if pessimism is so bad, why didn’t evolution eradicate it from the human gene pool? Here, using yin-yang as a problem solving tool helps. Perhaps optimism and pessimism work as two opposing forces balancing one another. On one hand, extreme pessimism can create a despondency that corrodes our motivation to overcome challenges. On the other, extreme optimism breeds Pollyannaism promoting complacency and inaction, blinding us from problems.

As a revisionist perspective to the glass half-full, half-empty metaphor shows, pessimism has positives. Since people are more likely to respond to pain of loss than the joy of gain, people who see their glass as half-empty are more likely to get more water. This reflects itself in the advantages that pessimism brings to innovation and that dissenters bring to improving businesses. Thus, rather than try to discourage optimists by labeling them unrealistic and pessimists by labeling them downers, perhaps we need to value what each brings to improving our worlds. It seems Mother Nature does.

Are you prepared to give your counterforce a hug today?


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