Posts Tagged ‘Optimism’

Mind and Medicine

March 19, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” There are two extreme views regarding the mind and medicine. One view, and it is unfortunate that there are physicians who hold this view, is that there is no relationship between the mind and medicine. The other extreme is that the mind controls all and medicine is unnecessary. Actually, this extreme view is the view adopted by some religions such as Christian Scientists, that prayer and meditation, not the mind, provides the basis for treating all illnesses. As the reader will see, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The truth is that there are links between the immune system and the central nervous system, and the field that studies this, psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is a leading-edge medical science. It’s name acknowledges the links: psycho, or mind; neuro, for the neuroendocrine system (which subsumes the nervous system and hormone systems); and immunology, for the immune system.

Some surgeons will cancel scheduled surgeries for people who are panicked by the prospect of surgery. Every surgeon knows that people who are extremely scared do terribly in surgery. They bleed too much, they have more infections and complications, and they have a harder time recovering. Patients do much better if they are calm.

A study of anger in heart patients was done at Stanford University Medical School. All the patients in the study had suffered a first heart attack, and the question was whether anger might have a significant impact of some kind on their heart function. While the patients recounted incidents that made them mad, the pumping efficiency of their hearts dropped by 5 percentage points. Some patients showed a drop in pumping efficiency of 7% or greater. This is a range that cardiologists regard as a sign of myocardial ischemia, a dangerous drop in blood to the heart itself.

Another study by Dr. Redford Williams of Duke University found that those physicians who had had the highest scores on a test of hostility while still in medical school were seven times as likely to have died by the age of fifty as were those with low hostility scores. This is a stronger predictor of dying your than were other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Anxiety, the distress evoked by life’s pressures, is perhaps the emotion with the greatest weight of scientific evidence connecting it to the onset of sickness and course of recovery. Yale psychologist Bruce McEwen noted a broad spectrum of effects: compromising immune functions to the point that it can speed the metastasis of cancer; increasing vulnerability to viral infections; exacerbating plaque formation leading to atherosclerosis and blood clotting leading to myocardial infarction; accelerating the onset of Type 1 diabetes and the course of Type II diabetes; and worsening or triggering an asthma attack. Stress can also lead to ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract, triggering symptoms in ulcerative colitis and in inflammatory bowel disease. The brain itself is susceptible to the long-term effects of sustained stress, including damage to the hippocampus, and so to memory.

There are also medical costs of depression. In patients with chronic kidney failures who were receiving dialysis, those who were diagnosed with major depression were most likely to die within the following two years; depression was a stronger predictor of death than any medical sign.

Heart disease is also exacerbated by depression. A study of 2832 middle-aged men and women tracked for twelve years, those who felt a sense of nagging despair and hopelessness had a heightened rate of death from heart disease. For the 3% who were most severely depressed, the death rate from heart disease compared to those with no feelings of depression was four times greater.

As there are medical costs to pessimism, there are medical advantages to optimism. For example, 122 men who had their first heart attack were evaluated on their degree of optimism or pessimism. Eight years later, of the 25 most pessimistic men, 21 had died; of the 25 most optimistic, just 6 had died.

There is medical value from relationships. Two decades of research involving more than 37,000 people show that social isolation, the sense that you have nobody with whom you can share your private feelings or have close contact—doubles the chance of sickness or death. A 1987 report in “Science” concluded that isolation is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and and lack of physical exercise. Goleman takes care to note that solitude is not the same as isolation; many people who live on their own or see few friends are content and healthy. Rather, it is the subjective sense of being cut of from people and having no one to turn to that is a medical risk.

Goleman argues that for medicine to enlarge its vision to embrace the impact of emotions, two large implications of the scientific findings must be taken to heart:

HELPING PEOPLE BETTER MANAGE THEIR UPSETTING FEELINGS—ANGER, ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, PESSIMISM, AND LONELINESS IS A FORM OF DISEASE PREVENTION. The data show that the toxicity of these emotions, when chronic, is on a par with smoking cigarettes, helping people handle them better could potentially have a medical payoff as great as getting heavy smokers to quit. One way to do this that could have broad public-health effects would be to impart most basic emotional intelligence skills to children, so that they become lifelong habits. Another high-payoff preventive strategy would be to teach emotion management to people reaching retirement age, since emotional well-being is one factor that determines whether an older person declines rapidly or thrives. A third target group might be so-called at-risk populations—the very poor, single working mothers, residents of high-crime neighborhoods, and the like—who live under extraordinary pressure day in and day out, and so might do better medically with help in handing the emotional toll of these stresses.
MANY PATIENTS CAN BENEFIT MEASURABLY WHEN THEIR PSYCHOLOGICAL NEEDS ARE ATTENDED TO ALONG WITH THEIR PURELY MEDICAL ONES. While it is a step toward more humane care when a physician or nurse offers a distressed patient comfort and consolation, more can be done. But emotional care is an opportunity too often out of the way medicine is practiced today; it is a blind spot for medicine. Despite mounting data on the medical usefulness of attending to emotional needs, as well as supporting evidence for connecting between the brain’s emotional center and the immune system, many physicians remain skeptical that their patients’ emotions matter clinically, dismissing the evidence of this as trivial and anecdotal, as “fringe, or worse as the exaggerations of a self-promoting few.

The Master Aptitude

March 14, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” When emotions overwhelm concentration working memory is swamped. Working memory is where all information relevant to the task at hand is held. This information can be as mundane as the digits that comprise a telephone number, or as complicated as the intricate plot lines a novelist is trying to weave together. Working memory is the executive function that makes possible all other intellectual efforts, from speaking a sentence to tackling difficult logical propositions. The prefrontal cortex executes working memory and that is where feeling and emotion meet. When the limbic circuitry that converges on the prefrontal cortex is in emotional distress, one casualty is the effectiveness of working memory. We can’t think straight.

Here the role of positive motivation needs to be considered. The marshaling of feelings like enthusiasm and confidence enhance achievement. Studies of Olympic athletes, world-class musicians, and chess grand masters find their unifying trait is the ability to motivate themselves to pursue relentless training routines.

The added payoff for life success from motivation, apart from other innate abilities, is seen in the remarkable performance of Asian students in American schools and professions. A review of the evidence suggests that Asian-American children may have an average IQ Advantage over whites of just two or three points. Yet on the basis of the professions, such as law and medicine, where many Asian-Americans end up, as a group they behave as though their IQ were much higher—the equivalent of an IQ of 110 Japanese-Americans and of 120 for Chinese-Americans. It seems that for the earliest years of school, Asian children work harder than whites. Sanford Dorenbusch, a Stanford sociologist who studies more than ten thousand high school students, found that Asian-Americans spend 40% more time doing homework than did other students. Dorenbusch writes, “While most American parents are willing to accept a child’s weak areas and emphasize his strengths, for Asians, the attitude is that if you’re not doing well, the answer is to study later at night, and if you still don’t do well, to get up and study earlier in the morning.”

Goleman concludes, “To the way that our emotions get in the way of or enhance our ability to think and plan, to pursue training for a distant goal, to solve problems and the like, they define the limits of our capacity to use our innate mental abilities, and so determine what we do in life. And to the degree to which we are motivated by feelings of enthusiasm and pleasure in what we do—or even by an optimal degree of anxiety—they propel us to accomplishment. It is in this sense that emotional intelligence is a master aptitude, a capacity that profoundly affects all other abilities, either facilitating or interfering with them.

Although it is likely that most healthy memory blog readers are aware of the Marshmallow Test, its implications are important enough for it to be mentioned now. The first studies were done by psychologist Walter Mischel during the 1960s at a preschool on the Stanford University campus. The test involve placing a marshmallow before a four year old. The child was told that the researcher was going to leave for 15 to 20 minutes, but if they child could save the marshmallow until he retired, she would be rewarded with another marshmallow. Some children managed to resist and got the second marshmallow reward, and some didn’t. The ramifications of this study did not become clear until 12 to 14 years later. Those who had resisted temptation at 4 were now, as adolescents, more socially competent: personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze, or regress under stress, or become rattled and disorganized when pressured; they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties. The children who had grabbed the marshmallow were just the opposite.

The children who were able to delay gratification were also much better students. But, perhaps what was most astonishing were SAT scores. The third of the children who at four grabbed for the marshmallow most eagerly had an average verbal score of 524 and a quantitative scorer of 528. The third who waited the longest had average scores of 610 and 652, respectively—a 210 difference in total score.

Foul moods foul thinking. Being anxious about a test degrades both study and performance on the test. People who are adept at harnessing their emotions use anticipatory anxiety about an upcoming test to motivate themselves to prepare well for it, thereby doing well.

A mildly elated state called hypomania seems optimal for writers and others in creative callings that demand fluidity and imaginative diversity of thought. Here it is important to remember the inverted U shape relationship between motivation and performance. One wants to get to the peak of the inverted U. If euphoria gets out of control to become outright mania (not hypomania) as in the mood swings of manic-depressives, the agitation undermines the ability to think cohesively.

Good moods enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity. One was to help someone think through a problem is to tell them a joke. Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relationships that might have eluded them otherwise—a mental skill important not just in creativity, but in recognizing complex relationships and foreseeing the consequences of a given decision.

A great motivator is optimism. Optimism means having a strong expectation that, in general, things will turn out all right in life, despite setbacks and frustrations. Seligman defines optimism in terms of how people explain to themselves their successes and failures. People who are optimistic see a failure as due to something than can be changed so that they can succeed next time around, while pessimists take the blame for failure, ascribing it to some lasting characteristic they are helpless to change.

Optimism is central to growth mindsets, which are much advocated in this blog. Enter “growth mindsets” into the search block of the healthy memory blog for relevant posts.

Goleman terms Flow as the neurobiology of excellence. Flow is the state defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi known to athletes as the zone where excellence becomes effortless, crowd and competitors disappearing into a blissful, steady absorption in the moment. Goleman writes “flow represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing emotions in the service of performance and learning. In flow the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. Yet flow (or a milder micro flow) is an experience almost everyone enters from time to time, particularly when performing at their peak or stretching beyond their former limits. It is perhaps best captured by ecstatic lovemaking, the merging of two into fluidly harmonious state.”

Goleman writes that “there are several ways to enter flow. One is to intentionally focus a sharp attention on the task at hand; a highly concentrated state is the essence of flow. There seems to be a feedback loop at the gateway to this zone: it can require considerable effort to get calm and focused enough to begin the task—this first step takes some discipline. But once focus starts to lock in, it takes on a force of its own, both offering relief from emotional turbulence and making the task effortless.”

Entry to this zone can also occur when people find a task they are skilled at, and engage in it at a level than slightly taxes their ability. Csikszentmihali told Goleman, “People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are a bit greater than usual, and when they are able to give more than usual. If there is too little demand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate cone between boredom and anxiety.”

Flow is a desirable state to achieve. However, the master aptitude is optimism. With optimism one proceeds to develop growth mindsets. This leads to successful lives and healthy memories.

Why Are Older People More Vulnerable to Fraud?

December 19, 2012

It is always depressing hearing a story about an elderly couple who have lost their entire life savings to a scam. But one also wonders how people with so many years of experience can fall for such a scam. One would think that as we age we would become less, not more, vulnerable. An article in a Special Section on Aging in the Washington Post1 provides some insight.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), up to 80% of scam victims are older than 65. The tendency of the elderly to accentuate the positive makes them easy marks according to the FTC and the FBI. According to social neuroscientist Shelly Taylor, “Older people are good at regulating their emotions, seeing things in a positive light, and not overreacting to everyday problems.”2 Taylor and her colleagues showed pictures of faces considered trustworthy, neutral, or untrustworthy to a group up of 119 older adults (aged 55 to 84) and 24 younger adults (aged 20 to 42). “Signs of untrustworthiness included averted eyes; an insincere smile that doesn’t reach the eyes; a smug, smirky mouth, and a backward tilt of the head.”3 Each face was rated on a scale from minus 3 (very untrustworthy) to 3 (very trustworthy). The results indicated that the untrustworthy faces were rated as significantly more trustworthy by the older subjects than by the younger ones.

The same researchers then performed the same test with new participants. However, this time the brains of the participants were imaged looking for differences in brain activity between the age groups. When the younger subjects were asked to judge whether the faces were trustworthy, the anterior insula became active. This activity increased during the sight of an untrustworthy face. However, older people showed little or no activation. According to Taylor the insula’s job is to collect information not about others, but about one’s own body, sensing feelings and the so-called gut instincts, and presenting that information to the rest of the brain. “It’s a warning bell that doesn’t seem to work as well in older people.” It appears that the optimistic tendency of the elderly might be overriding this warning signal.

It is curious to speculate as to why the elderly tend towards optimism. As we age, we close in on the prospect of our own death, and have likely experienced the passing of loved ones. Physical and cognitive problems are likely to present themselves. Social relationships can deteriorate and be lost, so loneliness can be a problem. An optimistic attitude can be quite helpful in coping with these difficulties. Nevertheless, the elderly need to realize that this optimistic attitude can make them vulnerable to fraud. See also the healthymemory blog posts, “Will Baby Boomers Be More Vulnerable to Scams?” and “The Distinctiveness Heuristic.” Enter “Optimism” in the search box to find more posts regarding optimism and its positive and negative merits.

1Norton, E. (2012). Why Older People Get Scammed, Washington Post, December 11, E4.



© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Successful Strategies for Compromise

November 25, 2012

Compromise is key to a wide range of human interactions, from a marriage between two individuals, to legislative bodies, to negotiations among nation states. A recent article1 summarized empirical research into effective strategies for successful compromises. One effective strategy is perspective-taking, that is seeing the world through another viewpoint. Another strategy is to try to empathize with the party with whom you are negotiating. 152 participants played the role of either the buyer or seller in the sale of a gas station. Prior to the negotiation half the buyers were told to focus on the feelings and emotions of the seller (the empathy group), whereas the other half were told to consider what the seller was thinking (the perspective-taking group). The deal was complicated because the buyer’s maximum allowed expenditure was less than the seller’s minimum acceptable sale price. The optimal agreement here was for the seller to accept a lower price for the station in exchange for future monetary considerations, such as a guarantee of employment for the seller. The perspective-takers were much more successful in striking a compromise. About 76 percent of this group reached the ideal solution compared with 54 percent of the empathizers. In another study over the terms of employment, perspective-takers were able to achieve strong outcomes for both sides, whereas empathizers produced deals that hurt their own interests. Other research has discovered that you need not be naturally fair-minded to consider the opposing viewpoint. Even gentle reminders about perspective-taking can be enough to lessen the problems of a selfish mindset.

Another study gathered a coed sample of participants for an experimental negotiation that simulated a divorce settlement. The goal was to determine an equitable distribution of nine items. Some of the participants were told to be egoistic and to work toward the best personal outcome. Half of these participants were also told to consider the other person’s perspective during the deal. The results indicated that egoistic participants who used the the perspective-taking strategy had fewer impasses and also ended up with higher quality group outcomes.

Optimism, anticipating a successful outcome to the negotiation, is also an important factor. One experimental negotiation involved Israeli participants and a Palistinian research confederate. The negotiation involved the funding allocation for a security fence between Israeli and Palestinian communities. Half the Israeli negotiators told just to do their best to reach an agreement. The other half were given the same instruction, but were also told that every other team of negotiators had been able to achieve a successful agreement. The Palestinian negotiator, a confederate of the experiments, made the same starting and counter offers to each Israeli negotiator. About 82 percent of the Israeli negotiators given the positive expectation were able to achieve a successful negotiation, whereas only 34 percent of the control group, the ones just told to reach an agreement, achieved a successful outcome.

Unfortunately, this effect of optimism does not bode well for the outcome of negotiations that have been going on for many years without success. But in any case, negotiators have to be motivated and be willing to compromise for negotiations to succeed.

The Congress in the United States has been at loggerheads for quite some time. If compromises are not made, there is the real risk that the country will fall off a financial cliff. Unfortunately, there are many members of congress who refuse to compromise and have signed pledges refusing to perform certain acts. These congressmen are anathema to a democracy. All legislators need to compromise otherwise democratic governments collapse. The public blames congress, although it is the public that ultimately is to blame, either for not voting or for voting for candidates who do not compromise.

1Jaffe, E. (2012). Give and Take: Empirical Strategies for Compromise. Obsewrver, October 2012, 25,8, pp. 9-11.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Improving Your Outlook

April 29, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Outlook,” it is recommended that you read it prior to reading the current post. You should remember that you can be too optimistic or too pessimistic, so you should first assess where you are on this outlook dimension before deciding how it might be improved. Dr. Davidson provides suggestions1 to make yourself more optimistic or less optimistic.

To increase your level of optimism, Dr. Davidson suggests the following:

Every day for a week, do these three exercises:

      1. Write down one positive characteristic of yourself and one positive characteristic of someone with whom you regularly interact. Do this three times a day. Ideally write down a different trait each time.

      2. Express gratitude regularly. Pay attention to times you say thank you and look directly into the eyes of the person you are thanking and display genuine gratitude. Keep a journal and note the specific times you felt a genuine, however brief, connection with this person to whom you expressed gratitude.

      3. Complement others regularly for such things as a job well done, a well kept yard, or something they are wearing, even if they are a stranger. Again, look directly into the eyes of the person you are complementing and record your feelings in your journal.

At the end of the week reassess your level of optimism. If you are where you think you should be, continue to monitor your optimism and repeat the above exercises if you feel you have regressed. If you think you have become too optimistic, you can try some of the suggestions for people who feel they are too optimistic.

Envision negative outcomes. Try to imagine how things could go wrong. If you are considering a purchase, be sure to consider all the negative consequences that do or could result from the purchase. To build your negativity, work at it until you think you are at the right dimension along the optimistic pessimistic outlook dimension. I would also recommend making a practice of regularly watching and reading the news.

You can also adjust your environment. To move to the positive end of the dimension fill your workspace and home with upbeat, optimistic gratifying times, and people who bring meaning to your life. Try to change pictures often so that you do not become habituated to them.

To move to the negative end of the dimension, fill your home and workspace with reminders of threats to your well being, such a pictures of disasters, and newspapers, magazines, and books dealing with all the problems facing the world.

If you feel you have moved too far in either direction, rearrange your environment accordingly.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.


October 19, 2011

There are many benefits that accrue to those who are optimistic.1 Optimists recover better from medical procedures, and have healthier immune systems. They live longer both in general and when suffering from conditions such as cancer, heart disease and kidney failure.2

It is common knowledge that negative thoughts and anxiety can make us ill. The belief that we are at risk triggers physiological pathways such as the “flight or fight” response by the sympathetic nervous system. Although these have evolved to protect us from danger, when they are switched on long-term they increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes and dementia.

The new perspective on optimism is that positive beliefs don’t just work by quelling stress. They have unique positive effects. Feeling safe and secure and believing things will turn out fine seems to help the body maintain and repair itself. A review of recent studies concluded that the health benefits of positive thinking happen independently of the harm caused by negative states such as pessimism or stress, and are roughly comparable in magnitude.3

It is thought that optimism reduces stress-induced inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. It might also reduce susceptibility to disease by dampening sympathetic nervous system activity and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system governs the “rest and digest” response—the counterpart to the “fight or flight” response.

Even if you are not an optimist, you can train yourself to think more positively, and it seems that the more stressed or pessimistic you are to begin with, the better it works. David Cresswell of the Carnegie Mellon University asked students facing exams to write short essays on times when they had displayed qualities that were important to them. The aim was to boost their sense of self-worth. Compared to the control group, these self-affirmed students had lower levels of adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones in their urine on exam day. The effect was greatest for those students who had been most worried about their exam results.4

Tali Sharot has written an interesting book claiming that we have an optimism bias because it provided us with an evolutionary advantage.5 When most people are asked what is going to transpire in the upcoming month, they tend to give an overly optimistic account. Similarly, when asked to provide an estimate of their longevity or of their having certain diseases, they also tend to provide overly optimistic accounts. The people who are able to provide fairly accurate estimates for these same questions tend to be those who are clinically diagnosed as being mildly depressed. This phenomenon is called depressive realism.6 So the idea is that truly accurate realism can be depressive. A species of mildly depressed individuals probably could not have evolved.

To conclude, although optimism can be good, there is also the possibility of too much of a good thing. See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Can Optimism Be Bad?”

1Much of this post is based on an article, Think Positive, by Jo Marchant in the New Scientist, 27 August 2011, p. 34.

2Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39, p.34.

3Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, p.741.

4Health Psychology, 28, p.554.

5Sharot, T. (2011). The Optimistm Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain., New York: Pantheon Books.

6Alloy, L.B., & Abramson.  (1979) Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students:   Sader but wiser.?  Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General, 108, 441-485.



© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Can Optimism Be Bad?

May 22, 2011

Optimism and positive thinking are heavily advocated as means to not only happiness, but also to better physical and mental health. A recent article1 calls these beliefs into question. According to the authors, “…positivity is not all it is cracked up to be. Although having an upbeat attitude undoubtedly has its benefits, gains such as better health and wealth from high spirits remain largely undemonstrated. What is more, research suggests that optimism can be detrimental under certain circumstances.”

It should be appreciated that it is difficult to conduct research that does provide hard evidence that a positive attitude is beneficial. Most of the research is correlational and that can make it difficult to distinguish cause from effect. Obviously if you question a group that is healthier, happier, or more successful and rate their optimism or positivity scores against a group lacking in any of these attributes, it should not be surprising that the former group has higher ratings than the latter. It is also difficult to conduct controlled experiments on this topic. Suppose one group is given training on optimism and positive thinking and another group is not given this training and serves as a control. If the group given the training does score significantly than the control group, it could be the due to their being given special treatment, rather than the treatment it, oneself. This artifactual result is known as the Hawthorne Effect.

I think it is useful to make a distinction between the optimism/pessimism dimension, and the positive/negative thinking dimension. I think that the optimism/pessimism dimension is best regarded as a personality trait. That is, whether people see the glass as half empty or half full is basically determined by a personality trait. I tell people that I am a congenital pessimist. I definitely have a tendency to see the downside. There are benefits to being a pessimist, however. For example, pessimists have been found to be less prone to depression than were optimists after experiencing negative events such as a friend’s death. Although I need not extol the benefits of being an optimist, one obvious benefit is that optimists are more likely to persevere. It seems like most successful people have typically undergone failures, sometimes many failures, be before achieving success. Pessimists, however, having given up early, rarely achieve success.

Regardless of one’s innate disposition with respect to the optimism/pessimism dimension, I think it is important that everyone engages in both positive and negative thinking. Pessimists need to engage in positive thinking so that they will not overlook possible opportunities and will not give up prematurely in the pursuit of opportunities. If they like being miserable, fine, but positive thinking can make one happier and be more pleasant. The important point for pessimists is that they also activate the positive circuits in their brains (and if there aren’t any, to build some).

Optimists need to engage in negative thinking to keep them from pursuing foolish or unrealistic events. I remember reading about a married couple who were so energized after seeing the movie Rocky (the original, not one of the numerous sequels) that they put their entire wealth on a lottery tickets. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but I think you get the idea, to be sure to activate the negative circuits of your brain (and if there aren’t any, to build some).

Unfortunately, positivism is oversold. I become angry when I hear someone tell a child that they can be anything they want provided they put their mind to it. While it is true that most people can probably achieve more than they think they can, a substantial contributor to success is opportunity, If opportunities are not available at the appropriate times, success is likely to be stunted. For example, the famed football coach, Vince Lombardi spent many years as an assistant coach before finally being offered the head coaching job with the Green Bay Packers. If memory serves me correctly, I believe I saw a movie2 in which Lombardi was ready to quit coaching before being offered the Packers’ job. As a result of this opportunity, he went on to become one of the most famous coaches of all time and had the Super Bowl Trophy named after him. This is a conjecture on my part, but believe that there were many potential Lombardi’s in the NFL assistant coaching ranks who never got the chance. Similarly, I think that there were potential Hall of Famers at the quarterback position, who either never were drafted, or who never got a chance at a starting position. There is nothing special about professional football. I think you can find examples in any endeavor you choose. Although you can and should prepare yourself for opportunity, you might need to realize that the opportunity might not come. And if it does not come, you should not view yourself as a failure, but rather as someone who did fulfill their existing potential.

1Lilienfeld, S.O., & Arkowitz, H. (2011). Can Positive Thinking Be Negative? Scientific American Mind, May/June, 64-65.

2I understand another movie is scheduled to come out in February 2012 with Robert DeNiro playing the role of Lombardi.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving

November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving is the holiday devoted to being thankful for all the good things we have and all the good people we know (more commonly called blessings). It is a positive holiday when we should focus on the positive features of our lives. Continuing to focus on the positive contributes to a healthy memory. Consequently, it is good to carry the positive frame of mind fostered by Thanksgiving throughout the entire year.

Positive thinking fosters more positive thinking. The expression is “neurons that fire together wire together.” So thinking positive thoughts activates circuits that will be more likely to fire together in the future. How you feel is affected by how you interpret your environment. You see a glass with water at the halfway mark. Do you interpret that as half empty or half full? The interpretation is up to you, and this interpretation will affect the way you think and feel. In other words you have the capacity to change your brain if you choose to exercise it.

Paying attention to the internal sensations of your body can also have effects. The insular cortex is a part of the brain that tracks the internal state of the body. When a person meditates, her insular cortex becomes thicker as a result of neurons making more and more connections with each other. (See the Healthymemory Blog posts “The Relaxation Response,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” “More on Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention”). The insular cortex plays a role in emotion, homeostasis, perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience. A malfunctioning insular cortex can lead to psychopathology. In addition to meditation activities such as paying attention to your breathing, yoga, Tai Chi, and dancing can put you in touch with the internal sensations of your body.

Remember the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” If you think negatively, you are reinforcing negative circuits and the further promotion of harmful negative thoughts. So foster positive circuits by thinking positively. I hope you had a happy thanksgiving and I hope you continue this happiness throughout the entire year.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.