Being

THE BIOLOGY OF OPTIMISM

There is so much that we have learned about the biology of our nervous system, and yet most of the brain remains a mystery to even the most well-researched professionals. Much the same as the vast expanse of our oceans are unexplored, so are the seemingly infinite reaches of our fat and water based computer housed inside of our home-grown carry-on helmet.

As our research into our own structure and operation continues, the scientific community covers an increasing amount of ground when it comes to testing and mapping the firing of our axons and dendrites. (The white matter part of our gray matter – the ties that bind.)

So this has me wondering: what do we know about optimism?

A great deal by practice – human beings have a history of successfully discovering and implementing the power behind positive thought. And the best of those have learned to stitch it together with an appropriate amount of scrutiny to keep it from ballooning into dangerous proportions.

By study it’s a different story. As a global community we’re learning more by way of formal research to help us understand this wonderful trait that continues to serve us so well.

Not that you need to understand it to make good use of it, mind you – I can’t tell you what is taking place on a chemical level when I mix up some batter and put it in the little white hot box in my kitchen, but I do know all the necessary actions to make that process produce some damn tasty cookies.

There is an article posted on line regarding the very subject of the biology behind optimism:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3807005/

It struck me as oddly familiar as they reference left-brain and right-brain activity. It’s been understood for some time now that it’s not as cut and dried as “the left does the art, the right does the math,” but the two sides do typically perform some vastly different functions from each other that are brought together in a wonderfully synchronous tandem.

And so in this article when it spoke of optimism being correlated with activity in the left side and pessimism correlated with the right, I found a smile crawling its way up my cheek. It seems so appropriate: the traditionally artistic side is all about being bright, cheery, and beautiful while the conventionally logical side is about “being realistic” and keeping things from bounding into dangerous territory.

Both sides of the brain are always working simultaneously to some greater or lesser degree and sharing information, but these researchers found a difference in which side was dominant when it came to processing the bright side of things versus a brain that is calculating how many clouds there are to ruin a sunny day at the beach.

The basis of my writings are my internal motivation towards optimism, but this does not mean that I attempt to wash out all negativity – quite the opposite. This article states a very important part of being a functional bright-sider: cautious optimism. Always look for the bright side, but be ever vigilant of what can damage you or your quality of life.

It’s a tricky balancing act, to say the least.

As I’ve written about before, there is no magic pill that will make the load you carry through life any easier. But there are perspectives and states of mind that can make things feel much lighter and usually free up a lot of your mental and emotional resources.

I can tell you that carrying a pessimistic mindset will usually turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of personal hells. Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re probably right. And if you’re sure that things will go down the tubes, then you’re going to spend all of your time staring at the gutter waiting to see yourself land at the bottom and cry out “I told you so!!”

Ok, so you were right. Not much of a victory.

But those logical sticks-in-the-mud that populate the right side of your skull have an important role in this – optimism can be dangerous. This is precisely why it is so important to remain cautiously optimistic. An extreme example would be that no matter how positively you believe you can fly, when you jump off of a thirty story building, your cheerful belief will do nothing to slow your descent towards the hard concrete of the sidewalk below.

A more realistic look at this would be overestimating yourself in a situation. Let’s say you spend years working towards your doctorate degree – you’ve been thinking about this since you were young and you just know that it’s your destiny. After all these years of hard work you’re going to stand in front of the review board as they congratulate you on your undeniably monumental work.

As you walk out of the building you feel a glow. What a flattering day! All that stressful work and now you have achieved what you’ve been driving towards most of your life. As you walk home you’re already thinking about what lies ahead now that you’ve accomplished your dream – you can build a wonderful career and make such a difference in the world!

Then a year goes by, then three more… and all that you have is work! The amount of grinding and overtime you have to do didn’t lighten up and you’ve still got a bunch of debt from putting yourself through school. Not only that, you don’t have much time for friends, and the people you relate to the most are the ones that are in your field – the only ones that understand what the hell you’re talking about.

And romance? Who has time! You’ve been to bed with a few people over the years, but nothing ever seems to stick. What do you mean you want to get together once a week? And do what, just sit around together? Go out on the town?!? You’re already tired and still in debt!

I’ll admit this is an example of workaholism as much as it is of expectation, but the point I’m illustrating here is that it’s easy to overestimate where you may find yourself once you accomplish a goal that you’ve laid out. You may think that you’ll get “there” and then you can relax and things will be easier; that you’ll carry the glow of your accomplishment for years to come!

But you won’t. The glow of something enjoyable fades just like everything else. Love, alcohol, replacing the stairs in your house with a waterslide: everything we gain in life has a finite amount of afterglow.

I use this example because it’s one I know well – not the waterslide thing. Though now that I think about it I may have just gained a new goal in my own life…

I mean the example of “if I just do X and get to Y, then I’ll feel good.” It seems I’ve been a little naively optimistic in terms of what each accomplished goal will bring.

It’s dangerous because it’s using optimism as a pry bar to squeeze you out of a situation that may not be too appealing now because it’ll all be better in the future. This is not a very functional use of optimism.

Something that may work better for such a situation would be taking even just a few minutes at the end of each day when you lay down in bed to enjoy the moment. Take the time to appreciate how hard you’ve worked, that you’re still alive and able to do the work, and that you have a few minutes to enjoy just being. Right here, right now.

This can be quite difficult to do in a situation where you’re working so hard – you’re underslept and the logical, learning part of your brain is overworked. Not only that, but you’ve worn ruts in that road of logic and analysis so it’s much easier to process things through this numbers and data way of thinking. As stated earlier, this is the side of your brain that seems to deal with pessimism – keeping you safe by not overreaching.

But optimism is imagination and feeling, and a part of your brain that you want to keep warm and running smoothly as well so that you don’t fall into the void of chronic “realism.”

I use quotes on realism there because so many of the self-proclaimed realists I’ve known tend towards pessimism. They have explained it as “things are going to go wrong, so you might as well be aware of life the way it really is.” They seem to believe that they can know their hand before it is even dealt.

It’s unwise to allow any part of us develop to excess while neglecting others. Just like you can easily spot those gym buffs that skip leg day, so you can identify those that operate on a purely logical basis. While there is great utility in logic, there is no joy to be found in constant analysis.

You don’t want one side of your brain to be buff while the other can’t even bench press a metaphorical ten pounds, do you?

As we move forwards, we continue to learn what makes us tick in the ol’ brain box and what works best for us. It turns out there are measurable differences between optimists and pessimists by looking at brain activity, and it once again lends support to the fact that the most optimal way of being is found through a fair balance between these two extremes.

Don’t allow yourself to sink too much into the hopes and dreams of some ideal place while you defy the rational truth that it’s not rooted in reality, and don’t let your current reality bind you to where you are and curtail your imagination’s ability to think yourself into a new reality.

What do have you seen around you? Have you noticed the most logical of your peers tend to be the least optimistic? Or the other way, do you know artsy-fartsy types that keep dreaming themselves into poor decisions? Or perhaps you’re lucky enough to know some wise soul that seems to keep finding a balance between order and chaos?

Keep on the bright side, my friends. Don’t be afraid to dream foolish dreams – just don’t lose sight of reality along the way.

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