Today’s Solutions: January 19, 2022

Psychologist Elaine Fox believes optimism isn’t a choice, but a habit. She has some advice on how to develop it—because it’s not just good for you, but for everyone else. 

By Marco Visscher

From The Optimist Magazine Fall 2015

It’s the perfect day for a conversation about optimism. We’re in Oxford, England—not exactly know for warm days, but the weather is so gorgeous, it would be hard not to walk on the sunny side of the road. And sitting down to lunch with Elaine Fox, an exuberant psychologist and expert on optimism, it would be hard not to get inspired about her field of expertise.

Fox, a professor of experimental psychology and director of the Oxford Centre for Emotions and Affective Neuroscience, is certainly an optimist herself. “Absolutely,” she beams. “I guess as an academic, you’d have to be an optimist, given all the budget cuts.”

On the other hand, Fox doesn’t have much to complain about on that front. She was awarded a prestigious fellowship to set up a large study investigating why some people are emotionally vulnerable to anxiety, depression and addiction, while others are resilient. Fox received funding from the European Union for a large five-year-study, involving psychology, neuroscience and molecular genetics.

Don’t expect Fox to say that optimism is the solution to everything. Yes, being more optimistic will boost our health and improve society, but it’s not a magic bullet. We need a realistic optimism, she says, one that’s balanced with an awareness that there may be serious obstacles to our happiness. Hence the emphasis on the need for balance in her latest book title—Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism. Because, as Fox explains over a salad, you need both.

What is a big misconception about optimism?

“That it’s all about positive thinking. But just trying to change your thoughts can be very superficial. There’s something to it, but it won’t have much of an impact. Optimism is a lot more than positive thinking.”

Like what?

“Optimism is a lot more about doing than it is about thinking, certainly more than most people assume. Positive actions are one of many other important components of optimism, and much more important than positive thoughts. What we do is more imporant than what we think. If we force people to do positive, optimistic things, then they do feel better. We know this from Method actors. If an actor plays the role of someone who’s overly optimistic and happy, the actor becomes optimistic and happy, too. This is revealing. We can actually force ourselves to act in a more positive way and then become more positive.”

What are some other components of optimism?

“Persistence is one. If we put a group of people to a test that they don’t know is impossible to solve, it’s the pessimists who give up quickly and it’s the optimists who keep on trying—on average twice as long.

A sense of control is another component. Optimists have the idea that they can do something about their situation, whether it’s at work or in their relationship. Their sense of control could be an illusion, but it’s still empowering and motivating. It stimulates the idea that you can make a difference.”

Do optimists make a difference?

“They do, absolutely. In fact, they just do more things in general. They’re more active and engage more. Optimists have more curiosity, so they explore more, take more risks and become more entrepreneurial. If it weren’t for the optimists, we’d still be living in caves.”

On the political level, we have introduced the precautionary principle to balance out some of the wide-eyed optimism of innovators.

“The problem is you can never prove that something is 100 percent safe. I don’t want to go as far as to say we should abandon the precautionary principle, but it does seem to reflect a suspicion toward the optimists. While I acknowledge that we should always be cautious about new technologies, I do think some of our concerns tend to be more alarming than is necessary. I understand there’s fear and anxiety in a lot of people, but sometimes it’s irrational. Also, we should remember that life is a bad risk. You can’t legislate against it.”

Do you think optimism is essential for social progress?

“It is, and the evidence is even clearer when it comes to our personal health. We know from research that optimism brings benefits to our general well-being and our physical health. Optimism is definetely good for us, on a personal and social level. But we can’t be optimistic about everything all the time. In fact, it’s not a good idea to try to be like that. After all, if you have a lump in your breast, it’s better to be somewhat pessimistic and have it checked, rather than think it will all be fine.

I strongly believe that pessimism has a role, too. It functions as an alarm system. There used to be predators all around us, so being scared and staying alert to dangers paid off. We might as well say that if it weren’t for the pessimists, we wouldn’t be around anymore. Today, we may not be under the threat of predators, but we have financial stress or we’re afraid we’ll lose our job. We shouldn’t ignore those feelings, but we shouldn’t be overwhelmed by them, either. I think we should simply accept that our fear system can be of some use to remind us that things may go wrong and that we’ll need to stay alert to danger. You wouldn’t want to switch that off. It’s all about getting the balance right.”

That’s easier said than done.

“Indeed. There are two biases that keep us from shifting to a more positive mind-set. One is the cognitive bias. This deals with the way we analyze the information around us, or what’s happening to us. People who are pessimistic will automatically tune in to the bad news—that’s simply how our brains like to work. The other is the memory bias: pessimists will selectively remember things that went wrong.” 

How can we change those biases?

“We can’t really change them. All we can do is try to make subtle changes to trick our brain and develop a more positive mind-set. There are some easy exercises that can have a big impact, like writing a diary. Just jot down all the things that touched you emotionally. Not the big, difficult things, just little things—you missed a bus, you ran into a friend, what happened at work. Rate these events as being either negative or positive. After a week, forget about keeping a diary. Then, after another week, look back and try to remember things. Only then should you read what you wrote down in your diary. People who are pessimistic are amazed to read so many positive things actually happened to them that they had forgotten about. They realize that their pessimism is a preconception and that they remember selectively. This is a great and easy exercise to confront their memory bias.”

Why is that so important?

“If you only remember all the negative things, you’ll start thinking that everyone is against you, that the world is in bad shape, and that things are getting worse all the time. Just keeping the diary shows you that you remember things to fit your worldview. It also makes you notice the more positive things as it’s starting to tune your brain into the more positive things.” 

Is it possible for a pessimist to become an optimist?

“Yes. Many people, especially those suffering from depression, find it difficult to motivate themselves to do anything. However, when they force themselves to do something—go out for coffee or even shopping—they tend to quite enjoy it. We all have this to some extent. If you go out for a run every day, and one day it’s raining, you just want to stay home and watch TV. But if you do decide to go out and run, you’ll feel much better for having done it. Pushing yourself really helps. If you do it regularly, it becomes a habit. And that’s what it’s all about—shifting our habits of mind.”

What else do you recommend to shift our habits?

“Do things differently than how you used to do them. Try to take another route to work. Read a book you normally wouldn’t pick up. Rather than carefully select the movie you’d like to see, go to the sneak preview in the cinema and find yourself surprised. All these things will force our brain to pay more attention. Our brain is very good at settling into a very habitual way of doing things. We should be thankful for that, as that’s why most things don’t take much effort. But to break up old patterns, we need to wake up our brain and do things differently.”

What change is possible, on a social level, if we become more optimistic?

“Well, we know from research that we tend to get things done when we’re optimistic. When we lose our optimism, we lose our motivation and succumb to a state of passivity. I’m sure we need a mixture of optimists and pessimists for a healthy society. But for society to advance, I’m sure we can use more optimists.” 

Marco Visscher, editor-at-large, has only fond memories of his visit to Oxford—and, in general, mostly fond memories.

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