How to be a realistic optimist in the face of the current pandemic? A neurological and practical perspective.

No one will disagree that the current COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on various aspects worldwide. People’s daily lives are significantly affected. Because of the uncertainty, many are experiencing lots of negative emotions, such as anxiety, fear and depressive mood. Rumi, an influential Persian poet, once said, “The wound is the place where the light enters you”. In fact, many people are able to see the silver lining of the current pandemic. For instances, families are spending more time together at home due to social distancing; and air pollution in many countries alleviates due to the lockdowns. Many people think that the world is a different place after this outbreak, but no one knows how things are going to evolve. Shall we be optimistic towards our future?

Some people may question the practicality of painting a rosy picture in the face of this pandemic because we already can see its enormous negative impact. In fact, being optimistic doesn’t necessarily mean blindly believing things will turn out to be well. Indeed, being a realistic optimist is more likely to experience persistent positive emotions and this will enhance the resilience of facing adversities in life. Realistic optimists pay close attention to the negative information they are facing, differentiate problems that are solvable and unsolvable, and take actions to solve the solvable problems.

The persistent positive emotions of the realistic optimists reduce their physiological arousal and broaden their thinking and behaviour. They are more creative and flexible in problem solving. Neurologically, there are three brain regions playing central role in optimism. The prefrontal cortex is essential for anticipation of the future and setting of goals. The amygdala is the center of emotions and it is important for us to imagine positive emotional events. The increase in release of dopamine in the reward circuit, including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), may be related to increase in creativity and flexibility when we experiencing positive emotions.

Research showed that when anticipating a positive future event, the activation in the amygdala and ACC increased. Furthermore, optimism is also associated with higher level of activation in the left prefrontal cortex and the reward circuit. Therefore, there may be neurological differences between the optimists and the pessimists. If this is the case, can we train ourselves to be a realistic optimist?

First, we may pay attention to the positive things in adversities. Instead of only focusing on the negative aspect, we may also focus more on the positive and hopeful aspects in any difficult situation. Second, we may learn to interpret events in positive way. In fact, we need to embrace both the positive and negative interpretations of a situation and be optimistic about the likelihood of positive outcome to occur in the future. Last but not least, we need to behave positively in the face of adversity. That is, instead of being pessimistic and passive, we take necessary actions to solve the solvable problems we are facing with the anticipation of positive outcome to occur.

As Rumi said, the wound is the place where the light enters you. It is inevitable that we had some loss in the face of the current pandemic. The silver lining is we may also experience personal growth out of this uncertain adversity.

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