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Your brain on optimism

By: Lillee Gelinas, MSN, RN, CPPS, FAAN, Editor-in-Chief

Positive nursing role models know how to train their brain to be more optimistic.

SPENDING TIME around positive nurses is contagious and heartwarming. The more you encounter them, the more you want of their time. Patients and families sing their praises with thank you notes and comments on social media. What creates such upbeat karma? Having spent a few days at a meeting with the some of the most positive people I’ve ever met, I wanted to find out.

You know the personality type as the “glass is half full” versus “glass is half empty.” Aparna Iyer, MD, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says that “optimism is a mindset that enables people to view the world, other people, and events in the most favorable, positive light possible.” So, what makes them different?

Research shows that optimism is about 25% inheritable, so factual, genetic reasons are behind why some people are positive by nature. Social, environmental, and other factors affect the other 75%. Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, PhD, RN, CRNP, FAANP, FNAP, FAAN, a member of American Nurse Today’s editorial advisory board and a wellness expert, has extensive experience describing the importance of mindfulness to wellness. She says that when you live and work with purpose, you see the glass as half full and tend to cope better with negative situations. The nursing profession gives us one of the most purposeful paths in life, and we need to capitalize on it.

Things aren’t as bad as your brain thinks they are

What’s happening with your brain when you’re optimistic? The answers lie with left brain versus right brain activity. Brain wave patterns are strong predictors of how you react in certain situations. Positive moods are associated with more left brain–based activity while negative emotions such as anger, depression, and unhappiness are generated more from the right side.

Having a pessimistic outlook is easy. Just look at the headlines about global warming, workplace harassment, and gun violence streaming across your devices. A Pew research study showed that most Americans feel life in the United States is worse than 50 years ago. Look at the facts: The average life expectancy is way up, and child mortality is down. If the world is objectively better, why all the pessimism? Look once again to our brains and a trait called “availability bias,” which causes negative events and situations to loom larger in our minds than positive ones. Researchers say that this quality probably is rooted in our evolution because avoiding danger is necessary for survival and plays out in the instinctive psychological response (fight or flight) to a threating situation. Think about it. A social media headline proclaiming that “the world is doing great” probably wouldn’t get “liked” very often or keep you returning for more.

Positivism is good for your health

Science tells us that optimistic outlooks are better for our cardiovascular health, drive stronger immune systems, and can lengthen our lifespan. A large study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the most optimistic women were 30% less likely to die from any of the serious illnesses or condit ions, including cancer, heart disease, and stroke, that were tracked during the study’s 8-year period. So, while we’re achieving our Healthy Nurse, Healthy NationTM objectives, staying positive should be a key point on our wellness checklist. I asked a group of optimistic nurses how they create their positive mindset. Here’s their checklist:

• Have positive friends in your network. Just like diseases are contagious, so is negativity.
• Turn off the negative social media feed.
• Write down each day what you’re grateful for.

Great advice. Stay positive, colleagues. It’s good for you.




Lillee Gelinas, MSN, RN, CPPS, FAAN Editor-in-Chief

Selected references

Kim ES, Hagan KA, Grodstein F, DeMeo DL, De Vivo I, Kubzansky LD. Optimism and cause-specific mortality: A prospective cohort study. Am J Epidemiol. 2017;185(1):21-9.

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