Neuroscience Tells Us, Being Optimistic Pays

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Summary: Optimism should be used wisely. Neuroscience explains how we can balance our expectations to feel our best.

Key Take Aways:

-       There are times to reach for your optimism hat

-       Overall ‘realistic optimism’ is the most healthy

-       There are dangers to being overly optimistic

For year’s people have spoken about being a ‘glass half full’ verses a ‘glass half empty’ kind of person. Most people have talked up the benefits of looking on the sunny side of life…but is there such a thing as too optimistic? Are there times when looking through those rose tinted glasses isn’t such a great plan?

One of the reasons I love neuroscience and being able to actually understand at a basic level what is going on in the brain when we are doing things, like being optimistic, is that it enables us to be more precise. My mum always tells me a story about how, when on holiday, I had been whinging about the walk back to our apartment and she told me that it was just a straight line back. When we came to a bend in the path I apparently refused to go any further because it wasn’t straight like she had said. While this says a lot about my stubbornness, it also is analogous to how we can all get stuck sometimes when general advice doesn’t seem to apply or work for our specific scenario.

So what do you need to know about optimism to gain maximum flexibility in how you use it to enrich your life?

Here are a few key times that it can be super important:

- When feeling dejected decreases your productivity

- When you have no motivation

- When pessimism prevents action

- When you are feeling highly anxious

- When in pain (a study showed placebos can be more effective if you are optimistic)

At these times reaching for your optimistic hat can be useful.

Let’s take a look inside your brain when you are being optimistic. Two areas are actively involved. Your amygdala and your anterior cingulated cortex (ACC). The theory is that a part of your ACC gets activated most when you think of future positive events (rather than future negative events or any sort of past events). Your ACC is linked to your amygdala and so activates that too. Your amygdala is most famous for being involved in your emotions.

What about being too optimistic? Is it possible? It is. Your brain doesn’t like to be disappointed. When you have an expectation and it isn’t met your brain isn’t a happy bunny. So not only by being extremely optimistic are you in danger of being a poor planner and taking too many risks but you also a dopamine mini catastrophe!

When your expectation isn’t met your levels of dopamine are likely to take a nosedive. This feeling isn’t great, and can feel like actual pain. Side effects include you finding it difficult to focus. The process can even evoke a threat response, which is bad news for both your happiness and any productivity level you hoped to achieve.

On the other hand, when you are realistically optimistic and your expectations are met then you get a hit of dopamine. This makes you feel good, enables you to focus, solve problems more easily and gives you the opportunity to create a winning cycle.


Setting a goal that is attractive to you and realistic (even if right now you don’t know how it will specifically be achieved) could help activate areas of your brain that will help you in achieving the goal.

Photo Credit: Flickr, Jasoneppink

Amy Brann, author of 'Make Your Brain Work', is passionate about people living lives that are fulfilling and enjoyable. Bridging the gap between cutting edge research from the neuroscience world and people who want to understand how their biggest resource works. After a couple of years at med school Amy set up Synaptic Potential which works with organisations teaching them how their brain works to increase their productivity and most recently the MYBW online community which gives individuals access to a fascinating range of resources. She currently lives in Birmingham, England.

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Marisa Keegan


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