How much optimism is genetic?

The genetics of optimism: Are we predetermined to see the positive or the negative? You see, I'm not a pessimist. I am a well-informed optimist.

How much optimism is genetic?
My name is not a pessimist. I am a well-informed optimist. Photo by Lidya Nada / Unsplash

Optimism means having a strong expectation that things will go well despite difficulties, setbacks, and previous experiences. It is undoubtedly because of optimism that we still get married and buy a lottery ticket (even if the chances are two in eight of ending in divorce, and two in 18 million of winning the lottery).

If we processed information like a computer and relied solely on facts and statistics, man would most likely not have landed on the moon and would not have set out to find out if the earth was indeed round. Without optimism, there would be no discoveries and no progress; if there were no optimism, we might still be in the stone age.

Being optimistic does not mean that we do not know the most probable outcome, but that despite knowing it, we believe that we will be one of those lucky 18 million who buy a lottery ticket. Being optimistic involves more than thinking positively, being optimistic means processing information within our brain differently. Although many sociologists and psychologists accept that optimistic thoughts can be learned, information in the field of genetics reveals that seeing the glass as half full or half empty may be written into our genes.

Years ago, researchers in the United Kingdom discovered that a change in the code of a gene (variant) is the cause of certain people being optimistic even in adverse situations. The secret is that they focus on positive information and minimize negative information; in contrast, those who lack this variant have a more negative perception of events.

The experiment consisted of showing the study participants both positive and negative images on a computer and simultaneously measuring the time it took them to react to them. The results showed that the volunteers who had the gene variant that controls serotonin - a protein responsible for regulating feelings of well-being - ignored negative images. This study also showed that those who did not have the gene variant focused on negative images and were more anxious and even more likely to suffer from depression and physical ailments.

"An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity, a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity." - Winston Churchill, British politician.

The genetics of optimism could make us think that if we are born optimistic or pessimistic (according to the information in our genes), there would be no chance to change. However, a study conducted by researchers at Tel Aviv University reported that the information in our genes is responsible for only 50% of the degree of human optimism. These researchers decided to study identical twins since if "something" is genetic, there should be a great coincidence between them because they have the same genetic information.

Winston Churchill makes the V-signal while aboard the Cunard liner RMS Queen Mary.
Winston Churchill, British politician. Image by Levan Ramishvili via Flickr

As in the British study, the researchers found that optimism and positive thoughts lead to a state of happiness that not only brings well-being but also influences the health of individuals. The state of happiness has even been related to work performance, sporting achievements, and social relationships.

These findings give hope to the increasingly relevant Positive Psychology, a branch of psychology that studies the bases of psychological well-being and happiness, as well as human strengths and virtues, in contrast to classical psychology, which has focused on studying the negative and pathological aspects of human beings.

In this way, Positive Psychology aims to increase that 50% of optimism that is not genetically determined. If we are born as those people who see the glass half empty more often, we have the opportunity to train ourselves to be more optimistic. A more positive perception of reality can lead us not only to be more productive but also happier.