Richard G. Petty, MD

Optimism and Pessimism

It is sometimes very disheartening to read articles that are probably well intentioned, but in which the writer hasn’t done the most basic research.

I was just sent an article on optimism and pessimism, in which the writer extols the benefits of developing an optimistic outlook on life. And yes, it’s nice to be optimistic, but he – at least I think that it’s a he – makes several significant errors.

He gives examples of several well-known people who were supposed to have attained great things by being optimistic rather than realistic. He has clearly not studied the lives Thomas Edison or Henry Ford in any detail. Or Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa or Ted Turner.

He then says that optimism cannot be measured. Yes it can, there are many validated rating instruments. There is also a lot of research on the relationship between optimism, pessimism, temperament and cognitive and personality styles.

He goes on to say that you can learn to have an optimistic outlook on life. That is only half true. There are well-known genetic predispositions to optimism and pessimism. I’ve also written about recent work from Finland that makes it clear that it is very difficult to develop an optimistic mind set if you spent your childhood in a low socioeconomic status family. Special techniques may be needed to help people who were disadvantaged in childhood.

The idea that you can achieve anything by just “thinking it,” is not just wrong but it leads to some people feeling inadequate because they cannot generate enthusiasm and optimism. I have seen countless people feel guilty because they could not feel happy and optimistic the way that the motivational speaker told them to!

An un-researched and unbalanced article does more harm than good. It’s no good saying that it wasn’t meant to be scientific: you, as a reader, deserve better than some generalized nostrums based on wishful thinking. If someone recommends something, you need to know whether you can rely on what you are being told, or if it is just an unsubstantiated opinion. If it’s just an opinion, that’s fine, but you need to be told that, and why you can rely on that opinion, or why the writer has chosen to disregard research and previous experience.

So are you stuck with you genes and your upbringing? No you are not. But it is important to know if you are one of the people who do better with negative cognitions. It is well known in psychology that some people do much better with a constant negative outlook on life. In fact a psychologist – Julie Norem – wrote a first rate book on the subject entitled The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak.

There are techniques from cognitive therapy that can help change a person’s outlook and the newer technique – Attachment and Commitment Therapy – teaches ways of detaching from negative and pessimistic cognitions, rather than trying to stick a smiley face on them.

Best of all are the techniques of Integrated Medicine, that help attitudinal problems with a combination of highly individualized physical, psychological, social, subtle and spiritual techniques.

“If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”–Unknown Author

Temperament, Depression, Class and Resilience

Within the first few weeks of life, infants show marked individual differences in their level of activity, their responsiveness to change in the environment and their irritability. Some clearly enjoy being touched and mold their bodies to the person holding them, while other stiffen and squirm and do less to adjust their bodies to another person. These mood-related personality characteristics are called temperaments. There is some evidence that temperament is one of the basic building blocks of the personality. Temperament appears to consist of inborn traits, but they can be modified by parental contact: there is actually a reciprocal relationship between child and parent. The child modifies the behavior and attitude of the parent.

It is commonly said that a child’s temperament is as fixed as handedness or eye color, but this is inaccurate: we have overwhelming evidence that temperament can be changed by environmental influences. This makes sense. In Healing, Meaning and Purpose, we discuss the implications of the new findings about genes in the brain: they do not so much determine behavior as predispose you to the way that you will handle the environment. An important questions is just how plastic is human temperament? To what extent can you overcome your genetic programming and early rearing? Some recent research has indicated that the environment of the first three years of life is not as critical to later development as we used to believe. But I think that it’s dangerous to read too much into this research. Early emotional deprivation may leave the deepest scars and also be associated with physical deprivation. If a developing brain is deprived of key nutrients, it is difficult to catch up later.

More and more research is finding key genes that contribute to temperament. There is important evidence from animal research that the temperament of infant female rats can predict life span in those who develop spontaneous tumors. It is difficult to extrapolate from that to humans, but it is a further demonstration of the incredibly subtle interactions between genes, the environment, behavior and physical illness.

Some important recent research has examined the impact of temperament on the clinical features of bipolar disorder and of ADHD and autistic spectrum disorders. As expected, people with ADHD reported high levels of novelty seeking and high levels of harm avoidance. Patients with autism spectrum disorders were low on measures of novelty seeking, they had little dependence on rewards and high harm avoidance. Cluster B personality disorders, the dramatic, emotional, or erratic disorders ones (antisocial, borderline, narcissistic and histrionic), were more common in people with ADHD and the other clusters A and C were more common in autistic spectrum disorders. This tells us that these tow clinical conditions can have some specific effects on the structure of temperament, and on the risk of developing specific personality disorders.

In a new study in next month’s issue of the Journal of Personality, Kati Heinonen and colleagues from the Department of Psychology at University of Helsinki, have found a correlation between adult pessimism and childhood temperament in low socioeconomic status (SES) families. It is no surprise to learn that children raised in higher socioeconomic groups have a more optimistic outlook on life. But this is what is interesting, and the thing that will launch a great many more studies. It was discovered that the effect of childhood socioeconomic status on pessimism tended to remain the same despite opportunities for socioeconomic fluidity. A person from a low SES childhood who moved upwards in status was less likely to be optimistic as an adult than someone from a high SES childhood who remained in a high SES environment. The inverse also held true, as people from a high SES childhood who moved downwards in socioeconomic status were more optimistic than those who remained in low SES. This indicates that children who had the chance to develop coping strategies during childhood and subsequently developed a sense of mastery and control that protected them in adulthood from the adverse effects of lower SES. By contrast children from lower SES backgrounds who are subsequently upwardly mobile may not have had the opportunities to develop those psychological resources. They are thus unable to benefit as much as possible from later experiences of success.

We already know that pessimism is related to physical and mental health, so this new study provides a critical link between socioeconomic status and long-term outcome. This is essential information for policy makers and for parents interested in helping children develop more effective coping strategies.

This research really proves that some of the excessive optimism of the self-help movement can sometimes be misplaced: just wanting something to be different does not make it so. If you had a lousy up-bringing in impoverished surroundings, it will make it more difficult to bounce back and learn essential coping skills.

More difficult, but not impossible.

Research on resilience has provided us with a great deal of information about developing mastery and coping skills in the face of being in a low SES, and we shall return to some of that work in the near future.

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Creativity and Promiscuity

What do Lord Byron, Dylan Thomas and Pablo Picasso have in common? Not only were they all creative, they also had lively and probably exhausting sex lives. British researchers have recently found evidence that this connection may be no coincidence.

Daniel Nettle from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and Helen Clegg of the Open University have spent some years examining the puzzle of schizophrenia. This is without doubt one of the most savage and distressing illness to afflict humanity. There is a heritable component, yet sufferers themselves often find it very hard to maintain relationships, have many physical illnesses and tend to have fewer children themselves. Yet the illness persists, and indeed appears to have become far more common in the middle of the 18th century, roughly coinciding with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The question then is whether some mild forms of the illness may have survival advantage. Theses investigators have been looking at some of the personality traits that may be predictive of schizophrenia. They found high rates of what is known as “Schizotypy” amongst the artists and poets.

The typical features of schizotypal personality disorder are:

1. Unusual experiences, including odd perceptions, magical thinking and sometimes hallucinations

2. Cognitive disorganization

3. Impulsivity

4. Non-conformity with regard to rules and social conventions

5. Often introverted, though some become overly sociable

People with schizotypal personality may develop schizophrenia symptoms if stressed, and they are found more commonly in the families of people with full-blown schizophrenia.

Psychologists have previously found that the creativity of professional artists and poets acts almost like a sexual magnetic, and it has long been thought that creative people are more likely to engage in increased sexual activity, but this research is the first to prove it. The average number of sexual partners for artists and poets was between four and ten, compared with three for non-creative types. Statistics also showed that the average number of sexual partners for both men and women rose in line with an increase in the amount of creative activity.

Links have been made before between bipolar disorder and creativity and also between creativity and schizotypy. An essential feature of creativity is the ability to put together unusual associations and ideas. In the schizotypal person who is creative, this is kept in balance, but in schizophrenia these association can become bizarre. Schizotypy tends to be associated with cognitive activation and sometimes greater sociability.

Apart from art and poetry, it is an open secret in the psychiatric community that several Nobel Prize-winning scientists have schizotypy, at least two have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, including John Nash of Beautiful Mind fame, and several famous Nobel Laureates have first-degree relatives with schizophrenia. The numbers are much higher than in the general population.

Some commentators have suggested that if you want to be lucky in love, perhaps you need to be more creative. We cannot all be a Byron or a Picasso, but I would suggest that injecting a little more creativity into your current relationships and if you are looking for new ones, being more open and creative about how and whom you meet, will likely make encounters more congenial for both of you.

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