Is Optimism Ever Unhealthy?

Author Article

As children, many of us were taught to think positively. Parentsand teachers may have told us to “always look on the bright side” or “keep a positive attitude.” Many self-help books even instruct that optimism is the secret to a healthy and successful life.

There’s no doubting that optimism is a powerful force. According to hundreds of studies, people high in optimism are happier, experience lower depression and anxiety, achieve their goals more often, show greater persistence in the face of setbacks, and even cope with physical illness better than their less optimistic counterparts. Optimism is clearly a good thing.

But, those same well-meaning parents and teachers who encouraged us to think positively may also have offered us the opposite advice: “Don’t get your hopes up or you’ll jinx it.”

So, which is it? Is optimism good for us or not?

According to research, the answer is “both,” depending on the circumstances. While being a positive person in general is a good thing, optimism can backfire when it strays too far from reality. In particular, too much optimism can lead people to believe they are less vulnerable to common problems than they actually are.

Known as the optimism bias, most us occasionally fall prey to this tendency. Next time you’re at a dinner party, try the following experiment: Ask people to raise their hands to indicate whether they believe they’re at greater risk, equal risk, or less risk than the average person of their same age, gender, and background for virtually any common negative event, from having a heart attack to being mugged. Defying the statistical odds, most people will say they’re at less risk.

This is exactly what psychologist Neil Weinstein found in his first study on the phenomenon in 1980.  He listed out more than 20 negative events ranging from relatively small (your car turns out to be a lemon) to catastrophic (developing cancer), and asked college students to estimate their risk for each. For nearly all of the events, four times as many students thought they were safer than average than thought they were at greater risk than average.

As nice as it might sound to be unrealistically optimistic, it has its downsides. Namely, it may lead people to take unnecessary risks. Studies of more than 20 health issues show that people are less likely to take precautions when they perceive that their risk for a disease is low. When people believe their chances of having a heart attack are low, for instance, they’re less likely to eat healthy diets, and more likely to smoke and consume alcohol.

The optimism bias may even make people more likely to text while driving. Sending text messages while behind the wheel is unequivocally dangerous, increasing the likelihood of accidents and near-accidents by twenty-three times. Nonetheless, people often dramatically underestimate their personal risk. In a national survey of more than a thousands drivers in New Zealand, only 41 percent of people said they thought texting while driving was “very unsafe,” while 30 percent even said they thought texting while driving was either “very safe” or at least “moderately safe.” So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of people said they regularly read or send text messages while driving.

Unfortunately, unrealistic optimism isn’t as easy to remedy as you might think. Education alone doesn’t seem to help. In a study appearing in the journal Health Psychology, researchers approached people in public places on the campus of Rutgers University, asking them to fill out an anonymous survey about their perceived risk of heart disease and alcoholism. Just before completing the questionnaire, some participants were given information about the risk factors for developing these conditions. The researchers hoped that this information would help participants come to realistic conclusions about their actual risk. Unfortunately, no differences were found between those provided with this information and those not. Both groups underestimated their risk.

As gloomy as this might sound, it doesn’t mean the optimism bias is unshakable. People aren’t unrealistically optimistic at all times or for all events. For instance, people are less likely to be unrealistically optimistic about things they perceive to be beyond their control. That’s because, when people perceive control over an outcome, they tend to base their predictions of risk on their intentions. If someone intends to go on a diet or start exercising, then that person may perceive his or her risk of heart disease to be lower. The problem is, of course, that most of us don’t follow though on all of our good intentions.

And perhaps that’s the most important lesson to be learned from this research: What often separates realistic optimism from unrealistic optimism is whether we actually act on our intentions. If all of us would follow through on our plans to eat healthier, exercise regularly, or pay an occasional visit to the doctor, perhaps our unrealistic expectations wouldn’t be so unrealistic after all.

Stop Doing This One Thing That Makes Your Brain Unhappy

Author Article
Bryan E. Robinson

“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure.”—Henry David Thoreau

Chances are you’re not buying the opening quote, but I promise it’s true. If you’re like many people, you’re so accustomed to multitasking you might believe it’s the only way to reach your goals. If modern life has made it necessary for you to juggle many tasks at once to get everything done, you could be one of millions who considers this strategy to be an essential survival tool in a culture that expects you to change tires going eighty miles an hour.

 Photo by Yifei Chen on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Yifei Chen on Unsplash

It’s Counter-intuitive But True

While you might think multitasking is the ticket to more productivity, experts disagree. They say juggling emails, phone calls, and text messages actually inhibit your ability to focus and produce. It fatigues your brain and eclipses your ability to interact with others and enjoy the present moment. From the outside, a multitasker bursting with activity looks productive and busy. But don’t believe everything you see. Scientists say that an initial burst of increased work hours increases productivity, but over time long hours eventually decrease productivity. And an 80-hour workweek can lead to a burned outbrain in less than four weeks.

It’s Simple Science

University of Michigan researchers discovered that when you bounce between several tasks at once, you’re actually forcing your brain to keep refocusing with each rebound and reducing productivity by up to 40 percent. Not only does multitasking undermine productivity, it neutralizes efficiency and quality of the outcome, creating several half-baked projects that can leave you overwhelmed and stressed out.

Studies from Stanford University confirm that heavy multitaskers have trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, creating greater stress. In an effort to handle the overload from prolonged multitasking, scientists say your brain rewires, causing fractured thinking, lack of concentration, and brain fatigue. As a result, multitaskers take longer to switch among tasks and are less efficient at juggling problems than non-multitaskers.

Your Decision-Fatigued Brain

At some point you might have to perform more than one activity at a time. But once multitasking becomes a pattern, it can backfire. When you make simultaneous multiple decisions days on end, you can wear out your brain. Scientists have discovered a phenomenon known as decision fatigue. Your fatigued brain may make different decisions from the kinds of choices you make after your brain has rested. The more you multitask and the more choices you make, the more difficult it is for your brain to make even simple decisions: what to wear, where to eat, how much to spend, or how to prioritize work projects? Brain fatigue can lead to shortcuts such as permitting your newly licensed teenager to drive the car on an icy night or opting out of decision making at home. And it can cause you to be short with colleagues, eat junk food instead of healthy meals, and forego exercise.

Tips to Prevent Mind Fatigue and Create a Happy Brain

It’s a paradox, but the more you saunter, instead of speed, the more productive, efficient, and successful you will become. Here are some tips to help you put the brakes on multitasking, remain productive, and avoid frying your brain:

1. Don’t let email and text pings interrupt a task. You’ll keep your stress level down.

2. Delegate tasks when possible. You’ll have less on your plate and more time to focus on one thing at a time.

3. Engage in fewer simultaneous tasks and slow down your pace. Slowing down can actually catapult your happiness, well-being, and success. Remember Aesop’s Fables? The tortoise—not the hare—won the race.

4. Prioritize the most important tasks one at a time and finish one big project before launching another. You’re less likely to get overwhelmed.

5. Keep your mind from jumping to another task by writing it down so you won’t forget it, and return to it after you complete your current project. You’ll have better focus and concentration.

6. Bring your attention to the present moment once in a while, notice what’s around you, and breathe. This is called mindful open awareness. You’ll be less stressed and more productive and successful in the long run.

7. Saunter to your tasks and perform one at a time to keep relationshipsalive. Hurrying and multitasking block important connections with colleagues and loved ones. Sauntering in present time allows your to engage with the people around you.

8. Chill your brain between appointments. Brisk exercise, relaxing in nature, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, massage and tai chi are ways to create a happy brain.

You don’t have to continue to allow external or internal pressures to dictate your life, clog your brain, and burn you out. Your mind and body weren’t designed to stay on red alert 24/7 so you can speed from task to task. Unless you’re under threat, you were designed to saunter. When you can slow down and savor the tasks you’ve been rushing through, ease and stillness keep your energy up, mind clear, and productivity high. So step back, take a breath, and chill. By the end of the day, you will have time left over for the things you want to do, your brain will be happier, and you won’t wear it out before its time.

If You’re Often Angry Or Irritable, You May Be Depressed

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Registered nurse Ebony Monroe of Houston recently went through a period of being quick to anger about every little thing. She didn’t realize then what it might mean for her health.

“If you had told me in the beginning that my irritability was related to depression, I would probably be livid,” Monroe says with a laugh. “I did not think irritability aligned with depression.”

She’s not alone. Many people — including physicians — associate depression with feelings of hopelessness, sadness and a lack of motivation or concentration, but not anger. Some researchers say that’s a problem, given that there appears to be a strong link between irritability and depression.

If you pick up what is often called the “bible of psychiatry,” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, you’ll find that the list of core symptoms for major depression doesn’t include anger.

“It’s not included at all in the adult classification of depression,” says Dr. Maurizio Fava, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

But he points out that irritability — a reduced control over one’s temper that results in angry outbursts — is listed as a core symptom of depression for children and adolescents. It has never made sense to him that it’s not included for adults. “Why would someone who happens to be irritable and angry when depressed as an adolescent suddenly stop being angry at age 18?” he asks.

Anger is an emotional and physical feeling that makes people want to warn, intimidate or attack a person who is perceived as threatening. Fava says a depressed adult with lots of anger is often assumed to have bipolar disorder or a personality disorder.

“We see in our clinics patients who are labeled as having other diagnoses because people think, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be so angry if you are depressed,’ ” says Fava. The diagnosis matters because it affects the kind of treatment people get.

Back when he was trained decades ago, Fava says, he was taught that in depression, anger is projected inward — that depressed people would be angry at themselves but not at others. That didn’t match what he was seeing in a lot of his patients with depression.

“I would say 1 in 3 patients would report to me that they would lose their temper, they would get angry, they would throw things or yell and scream or slam the door,” says Fava. Afterward, these people would be filled with remorse.

Fava thinks these “anger attacks” may be a phenomenon that is similar to panic attacks. His research found that this kind of anger subsided in the majority of patients treated with antidepressants.

Psychiatry has carefully studied how anxiety and depressed mood are experienced by patients, notes Fava, but anger has been relatively neglected. “I don’t think that we have really examined all the variables and all the levels of anger dysregulation that people experience,” he says.

That view is shared by Dr. Mark Zimmerman, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University. “The field has not sufficiently attended to problems with anger,” says Zimmerman.

“The most frequently used scales to evaluate whether or not medications work for treating depression don’t have any anger-specific items,” he notes.

Yet Zimmerman says clinicians frequently see increased anger in people who come to doctors seeking help. “Irritability is not that much less frequent than sadness and anxiety in patients who are presenting for psychiatric treatment,” he says.

Zimmerman and some colleagues recently surveyed thousands of patients who were making their first visit to the Rhode Island Hospital’s outpatient psychiatric practice. All were asked about the level of anger they had felt or expressed in the preceding week.

“Two-thirds of individuals reported notable irritability and anger,” he says, “and approximately half reported it at a moderate or severe level.”

Another large study by a different research group looked at more than 500 people who had been diagnosed with major depression. It found that more than half showed “overt irritability/anger,” and that this anger and irritability appeared to be associated with more severe, chronic depression.

Monroe, the nurse, was lucky enough to have a concerned friend who gently suggested that maybe she should talk to someone. “The way that she approached me decreased that wall of anger and anxiety,” says Monroe, “and that’s when I decided to seek the help.”

Monroe came to realize that traumatic events from her childhood had left her depressed and full of unresolved anger. With nowhere for that anger to go, she was lashing out at loved ones like her sister and husband. “So they caught the back end of my irritability when, in fact, they had nothing to do with the source of it,” she says.

After about a year of counseling, her life has improved a lot, Monroe says. She now works with a group called Families for Depression Awareness to help others recognize the signs of depression. Its list of symptoms that families should watch for includes “picking fights, being irritable, critical, or mean.”

Still, people with depression can have a hard time recognizing this in their own lives.

When I called up the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance to ask about anger, I reached its communications person, Kevin Einbinder. He initially thought to himself, “I’m sure somebody else certainly deals with anger, but I don’t have anger issues associated with depression.”

Then he started reflecting on his life with depression over the past three decades. “I thought of all the people in my life who have interacted with me — my family, the counselors, psychiatrists, even employers, significant others,” he says, “and I realized that anger was an underlying factor in all those relationships.”

For example, he used to use caustic, sarcastic humor to put people down. “This really drove people away,” says Einbinder. He also recalls sending angry emails late at night after lying awake and ruminating about things that had happened during the day. A counselor helped him see why this wasn’t such a good way to handle problems.

Overall, though, he and his caregivers never focused on anger.

In hindsight, he says, he really wishes they had.

“I think that would have provided a tremendous amount of context for what’s adding to my depression and in helping me, early on in my life, with more effective coping mechanisms,” Einbinder says.

With medication and therapy, he is doing much better now. Einbinder hopes that sharing his experiences will help people understand that if they’re dealing with depression and anger, “they’re not alone and there’s loads of resources out there.”