Helen Fisher, PhD

Optimism: the sunny personality

“I am more optimistic than most people.”  All members of Chemistry.com respond to this statement (and many others) when they join our site.   Many are optimistic, too.   But the highest percent of optimists live in 10 specific cities.  These men and women have several traits in common:  they are more likely to look on the bright side of any issue; they are confident that their way of doing things will work out; they have a plan for where they want to be in five years; they never enter any competition expecting to lose; and when they do lose, they focus on how they can do better next time. 

Who are these optimists?  They undoubtedly have some common past experiences.   But I suspect they also share some basic brain chemistry.   I say this because every member of Chemistry.com takes my personality test, a questionnaire that measures the constellation of traits linked with four basic brain systems: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen.   The dopamine system is linked with a sunny personality.  And, as I expected, those living in most of these 10 cities are Explorers, men and women highly expressive of the traits linked with dopamine.   Explorers are natural optimists. 

However, these cities are also packed with men and women who are highly expressive to the traits linked with estrogen, a brain system not associated with optimism.  Estrogen rich men and women (whom I call Negotiators) tend to see the big picture; they are intuitive, imaginative and mentally flexible; they have superb people skills; and they are emotionally expressive.   Could it be that Negotiators–who also tend to think long term, see the many sides of any issue, and are more accepting of ethnic, religious and intellectual diversity–are also more optimistic? Apparently.

Years ago, psychologist Martin Seligman founded the new field of Positive Psychology–which delves into the science of optimism.  Since then, Optimism Clubs have spouted across America and the world.  These clubs have many credos:  Among them: “to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind; to talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet; to make all your friends feel that there is something in them; and to look at the sunny side of everything…” (Peterson and Seligman 2004:569).  These precepts are good for your health. 

But optimism can also be dangerous.   Optimists see life through rose-colored glasses, what psychologists call the “pink-lens effect.” This can lead to self-delusion.  But here’s the good news.  The human mind has evolved a “self-correct” system to counteract misplaced optimism: mild depression.   Mild depression enables you to see (and adjust) your goals.   So be optimistic.  Expect positive outcomes; then work to reach these goals.   You will “self-correct” if you optimism becomes unrealistic.  And as you adjust your focus on more attainable objectives, you will rejuvenate your optimism.   

You’ll get other perks, too.  Friends, relatives, lovers and colleagues all flock to a sunny personality.