Always looking on the bright side of life can be BAD for you

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University College London psychologists asked people what their risk was of experiencing something bad. Then they gave them good or bad news. The pessimistic people took the news better


Always looking on the bright side of life can be bad for you, according to new research.

Feeling under stress helps us cope better with bad news, say scientists.

The discovery adds to increasing evidence that pressure is sometimes a good thing and sheds fresh light on depression.

Experiments in the laboratory and real world found stress combats the human tendency to be over-optimistic.

The findings published in JNeurosci provide a potential mechanism by which levels of optimism are adapted to the relative safety or danger of the environment.

University College London psychologists asked people what their risk was of experiencing something bad. Then they gave them good or bad news. The pessimistic people took the news better

University College London psychologists asked people what their risk was of experiencing something bad. Then they gave them good or bad news. The pessimistic people took the news better

In general people tend to be overly optimistic but the opposite is true in psychiatric conditions.

Some patients with depression for instance place a premium on negative information.

In the first study of its kind the US team showed the ability to flexibly shift between these two patterns can be a healthy, adaptive response to changing environmental demands.

They first induced stress in a controlled laboratory experiment by telling 36 young men and women they had to give a surprise public speech.

They then asked them to estimate their likelihood of experiencing 40 different aversive events in their life – such as being involved in a car accident or becoming a victim of card fraud.

Participants were then given either good or bad news – being told their likelihood of experiencing these events was lower or higher than they had estimated, respectively.

When the volunteers provided new estimates the control group showed the well-known optimism bias – a tendency to take more notice of good news compared to bad news.

In contrast participants with higher levels of the stress hormone in cortisol in saliva samples showed no such bias and became better at processing bad news.

The researchers obtained similar results in a study of 28 Colorado firefighters who naturally experience fluctuating periods of stress as part of their job.

Lead author Dr Neil Garrett, a psychologist at University College London, said: ‘Humans are better at integrating desirable information into their beliefs than undesirable.

‘This asymmetry poses an evolutionary puzzle, as it can lead to an underestimation of risk and thus failure to take precautionary action.

‘Here, we suggest a mechanism that can speak to this conundrum.

‘This pattern of results was observed in a controlled laboratory setting, where perceived threat was manipulated and in firefighters on duty where it naturally varied.

‘Such flexibility in how individuals integrate information may enhance the likelihood of responding to warnings with caution in environments rife with threat, while maintaining a positivity bias otherwise, a strategy that can increase well-being.’

Dr Garrett and colleagues said the tendency to be overly optimistic has mystified scholars and lay people for decades.

He said: ‘Here, we demonstrate a mechanism generating the optimism bias, namely asymmetric information integration, evaporates under threat.

‘Such flexibility could result in enhanced caution in dangerous environments while supporting an optimism bias otherwise – potentially increasing well-being.’

People readily incorporate favourable news into their existing beliefs – yet tend to give less weight to unwanted information. Ignoring it can lead to being ill prepared.

Stress is nothing new and in fact our body’s stress response is beneficial to us as it keeps us alert in times of danger.

This physiological response to stress is the same now as it was when our ancestors were hunting and gathering.

Back then, the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress was very important. When faced with a predatory lion for example our ancestors needed to be as strong as possible to either run or counter-attack.

In this sense, stress is a good thing as it has helped us survive as a species. Even now in everyday life, our bodies are very good and fast at dealing with difficult situations.

If someone swerves in front of your car, your body will immediately switch on its stress response to allow you to instantly react.

To help us react this quickly and almost unthinkably, vital neurochemicals and hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, will pump though our brains and bodies.

The problem we have now is this same cascade is triggered when we are faced with a difficult situation at work or needy family member and if you think about it, we can come across such ‘stresses’ many times a day.

If we don’t cope with these stresses well, our bodies don’t get the opportunity reset themselves physiologically.

This is why constant stress that pushes us beyond our limits can be bad for our health. 

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