Happiness and realistic optimism

Happiness and realistic optimism

Study: We think on the bright side

Nicole He

Issue date: 10/29/07 Section: News

A recent NYU neuroscience study has revealed that the areas of the human brain responsible for optimism are the same regions accountable for problems linked with depression.

The study, published last week, found that people are likely to visualize future positive events more vividly and within a closer context than future negative events.

The study was administered in the lab of Elizabeth Phelps, an NYU professor of psychology and neuroscience, and headed by Tali Sharot, now a post-doctoral fellow at University College London.

Phelps’ lab focuses on the cognitive science of learning and memory, especially in relation to emotions.

In the experiment, researchers scanned the brain activity of subjects who were asked to imagine past and future events like getting an ID card, winning an award, going to a funeral or the end of a romantic relationship.

“When participants imagined positive future events relative to negative ones, enhanced activation was detected in the rostral anterior cingulate and amygdala, which are the same brain areas that seem to malfunction in depression,” Sharot said in a press release.

Although a human optimism bias was already known by psychologists, this is the first study of its type linking emotions and the way we perceive our futures, Phelps said in a phone interview.

“What we found was that there is no real difference in memories of the past between positive and negative events, but positive events in the future seemed more vivid and in the moment,” Phelps said.

The researchers ran into the optimism bias when they were doing experiments to learn more about the way people think about future images.

“We found that it was very hard to get people to project neutral things in the future – only positive things,” Phelps said.

When asked to think about getting a future haircut, subjects virtually only thought about getting “the best haircut ever,” Phelps said. “People just don’t want to project boring haircuts in the future.”

CAS senior Dave Johnson, who worked on the study, said the results have significance in the lives of college students. A healthy level of optimism is important, he said.

“If we’re overconfident about how we might do on a test, for example, that might cause us to understudy,” Johnson said. “Conversely, if we’re underconfident it might cause us to become frustrated, leading to a bad grade.”

The findings may open up new avenues of research in the medical field.

“As we understand something like the optimism bias, we can maybe begin to identify mental disorders which can help aid medical research,” Phelps said. “The better we are at understanding how we live adaptively, the better we’re going to be at figuring out what we do when we don’t.”