The optimistic brain and how outlook influences learning

May 13, 2021

Brandes Gress

Once there was a baby mosquito who left home for the first time. When the baby mosquito returned its mother asked, “How was your first flight? The baby mosquito responded enthusiastically, “It was amazing! Everyone was clapping!” The reason for this story being that an optimistic outlook can influence your perception of reality and, in-turn, optimize your life. Research suggests that optimists excel at finding jobs, have better cardiovascular health, and improved mental health compared to those with pessimistic outlooks.[1][2][3] 

There is an overwhelming number of self-help books, manifestation methods, and research devoted to positive thinking and optimism. They flood you with tips, tricks, and techniques to rewire your brain to get yourself into a positive frame of mind. Winston Churchill famously said, “The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” Although much of the research, literature, and methodology used to rewire thinking is geared toward the adult brain, young children show signs of optimism and pessimism early on. Science has begun to uncover how optimism and pessimism not only influence health but also learning capabilities in children. Applying neuroscience and positive psychology in the classroom aids in academic success by helping students gain control over their thoughts, feelings, and brain chemistry. 

What happens inside the brains of optimists and pessimists? 

Do more good things happen to you than bad? When faced with uncertainty, do you expect the best? Do things hardly go your way? According to the Life Orientation Test, if you answered yes to the first 2 questions and no to the last one, then you may be an optimist.[4] Optimism is the belief that good things will happen to you while pessimism is the expectation that bad things will happen to you. Is it possible that these outlooks are genetically predisposed? 

Your outlook may be part of your genes. Researchers have figured out that oxytocin, or the love hormone, may be linked to optimism. When researchers studied the genetic material attached to the oxytocin receptor, they were amazed to discover that the “A” and “G” alleles had an effect on the subject’s outlook. Participants with 2 “A” variations were found to be less optimistic, have lower self-esteem, less personal mastery, and higher depressive symptoms in comparison to participants with 2 “G” alleles.[5] This isn’t the only study to have found correlations between optimism and neurostructural design. 

  • Researchers have found that an increased amount of gray matter in the putman region of the brain correlates with optimism.[6] 
  • Enhanced activation of the amygdala and in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex were found when participants were imagining positive future events.[7] 
  • Social optimism was linked to cortical thickness of the insula and inferior frontal cortex.[8] 

Are we doomed to be enslaved by our neuro-structures and brain chemistry for the rest of our lives? Absolutely not. Although there is much to be said about our genetic makeup and brain chemistry, research suggests that the mindset is malleable. 

  • Women diagnosed with breast cancer showed decreased depressive symptoms after participating in optimism training.[9] 
  • Prevention programs for university students decreased rates of depression and anxiety.[10] 
  • Optimism training increases the frequency of positive thoughts that foster optimism and motivate adaptive behavior.[11] 

How does optimism affect learning/academic achievement?

By now you’re maybe wondering what any of this has to do with education and student learning. Studies have shown that optimistic students have higher GPAs and better test scores compared to those with pessimistic outlooks.[12] This is because optimistic students tend to view their mistakes as temporary, and positive events as permanent. If a student does poorly on a test, the pessimist will say they’re not smart enough, whereas the optimist will try to study with someone who did well. Their outlook not only affects how they see the world, but also how they view their capacity for learning. In one study, pessimistic students were found to have lower scores in mathematics compared to their optimistic classmates.[13] 

Optimists also tend to be happier people. One of the key players of happiness is a neurotransmitter called dopamine.[14] Dopamine not only makes you happier, but it also turns on all the learning centers in the brain. It is associated with memory, learning, motivation, and attention which is a reason why optimists achieve higher grades and better test scores. One study found that reduced levels of dopamine levels negatively affected memory and learning in mice.[15] Although genetics influence optimism and pessimism in children, teachers also play a very important role.  

Inspire optimism and armor neurotransmitters

A 2009 study by Angela Duckworth et. al gave new teachers a questionnaire at the beginning of the school year to measure their optimistic explanatory style. At the end of the year, the questionnaire was given again measuring the same factors, then paired alongside their students’ academic gains. The results were staggering, students whose teachers were optimistic had greater academic gains than their peers.[16] In short, the teacher’s effectiveness could be predicted based on their level of optimism. 

There are several different ways teachers can increase the academic success of their students by creating an optimistic environment: 

Be positive and encouraging

Students feed off your optimism, words of encouragement, and positive thinking. Research shows that emotions are contagious![17] Oftentimes, a person’s positive, or negative, mood will be related to other people’s moods who are close to them. Being a beacon of positivity and encouragement can go a long way. 

Incorporate a rewards system to encourage positivity 

Children will sometimes lack the motivation to be positive when faced with defeat or a sense of failure. Implementing a reward system provides positive reinforcement, encourages optimism, and releases dopamine.[18]

Help change negative thinking patterns

Replacing negative thoughts or words with positive ones encourages the student to change their thinking and behavioral patterns. Cognitive restructuring takes a negative thought or reaction, notices it, and restructures it with a positive one.[19] When a teacher hears students say things like, “I did poorly on the test because I’m stupid” they can help it become “It wasn’t my best score, and a lot of the time I do well.” 

Play the role of your student’s biggest fan 

A teacher’s influence can make all the difference in a student’s self-confidence. When a child knows you believe in them, want the best for them, and see their potential they begin to see it in themselves too. A teacher’s influence can have a positive influence on self-esteem and academic motivation.[20] 

Exercise 

Simple enough, right? Studies have shown that regular exercise has a positive effect on academic performance.[21] Inside the brain dopamine and endorphins are released to increase happiness and get rid of chemicals that make you feel stressed or anxious. Not only will this improve academic performance, but mood as well. 

You can do it  

An optimistic outlook affects your brain chemistry, mood, physical, and mental health. With the abundance of research that has been conducted on the topic, children’s optimism and pessimism have not been overlooked. Children show increased academic achievement and higher self-esteem when they are optimistic and are educated by teachers who are optimistic. A teacher’s optimistic outlook can have positive effects on their students’ moods and academic achievements. Teachers can use simple tactics that will have lasting effects on their students’ learning outcomes and encourage them to take charge of their thoughts, feelings, and brain chemistry. 

1.Gielan, M. (2018).: Optimists Are Better at Finding New Jobs. Harvard Business Review. November 2, 2018. 

2. Kubzansky, L. D., Huffman, J. C., Boehm, J. K., Hernandez, R., Kim, E. S., Koga, H. K., Feig, E. H., Lloyd-Jones, D. M., Seligman, M. E. P., & Labarthe, D. R. (2018). Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 72(12). 

3. Conversano, C., Rotondo, A., Lensi, E., Della Vista, O., Arpone, F., & Reda, M. A. (2010). 

Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being., Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health. 6(1). 

4. Chowdhury, R. B. M. A. (2020). What is the Life Orientation Test and How to Use It? (LOT-R). October 12, 2020. 

5. Contie, V. (2016, March 30). Gene Linked to Optimism and Self-Esteem. National Institutes of Health (NIH). March 30, 2016. 

6. Lai, H., Wang, S., Zhao, Y., Qiu, C., & Gong, Q. (2020). Neurostructural correlates of optimism: Gray matter density in the putamen predicts dispositional optimism in late adolescence. Human Brain Mapping. 41(6). 

7. Sharot, T., Riccardi, A. M., Raio, C. M., & Phelps, E. A. (2007). Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature. 450(7166). 

8. Moser, D. A., Dricu, M., Wiest, R., Schüpbach, L., & Aue, T. (2020). Social optimism biases are associated with cortical thickness. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 15(7). 

9. Antoni, M. H., Lehman, J. M., Kilbourn, K. M., Boyers, A. E., Culver, J. L., Alferi, S. M., Yount, S. E., McGregor, B. A., Arena, P. L., Harris, S. D., Price, A. A., & Carver, C. S. (2001). Cognitive-behavioral stress management intervention decreases the prevalence of depression and enhances benefit finding among women under treatment for early-stage breast cancer. Health Psychology, 20(1). 

10. Seligman, M. E. P., Schulman, P., DeRubeis, R. J., & Hollon, S. D. (1999). The prevention of depression and anxiety. Prevention & Treatment, 2(1). 

11. Riskind, J. H., Sarampote, C. S., & Mercier, M. A. (1996). For Every Malady a Sovereign Cure: Optimism Training. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy. 10(2). 

12. Wray, M. (2020). Optimistic students earn better grades Creating Positive Futures: Academic and ADHD Coaching. 

13. Yates, S. M. (2002). The influence of optimism and pessimism on student achievement in mathematics. Mathematics Education Research Journal. 14(1). 

14. Wikipedia contributors. (2021). Dopamine. Wikipedia. March 10, 2021. 

15. Diggs-Andrews, K. A., Tokuda, K., Izumi, Y., Zorumski, C. F., Wozniak, D. F., & Gutmann, D. H. (2012). Dopamine deficiency underlies learning deficits in neurofibromatosis-1 mice. Annals of Neurology. 73(2). 

16. Duckworth, A. L., Quinn, P. D., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2009). Positive predictors of teacher effectiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 4(6). 

17. Elmhurst Health, E. (2019). How emotions, like colds, are contagious. Edward-Elmhurst Health. May 2, 2019. 

18. Halber, D. (2018). Motivation: Why You Do the Things You Do. BrainFacts/SfN. August 2, 2018. 

19. Boyes, A. (2013). Cognitive Restructuring. Psychology Today. January 21, 2013. 

20. Moyano, N., Quílez-Robres, A., & Cortés Pascual, A. (2020). Self-Esteem and Motivation for Learning in Academic Achievement: The Mediating Role of Reasoning and Verbal Fluidity. Sustainability. 12(14). 

21. Rasberry, C. N., Lee, S. M., Robin, L., Laris, B. A., Russell, L. A., Coyle, K. K., & Nihiser, A. J. (2011). The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance: A systematic review of the literature. Preventive Medicine. 52, S10–S20. 

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