Optimism is Genetic, Huh? Sigh. Sigh.

Josh Clark

A big thank you to SYSK listener Ani (pronounced ah-nee) over in Madrid for sending us a link to a recent Economist article on a University of Essex study that found an optimistic outlook may be genetic.

For the most part humans tend to maintain an optimism bias; an unfounded belief (at least as far as the law of averages goes) that things will pan out well for us. There are also those among us who truly excel at irrationally processing the positive and patently ignoring the negative; we commonly refer to them as optimists.

Irrationality irks scientists like nothing else can, and so, of course, they've set about trying to get to the bottom of why optimists see things the way they do. Using our friend the Wonder Machine, New York University researchers conducting a 2007 study found that the area of the brain associated with clinical depression in humans activates differently in the skulls of optimists. When the rostral anterior cingulated cortex doesn't function properly, depression occurs; in optimists, this region functions more robustly than in non-optimists.

It seems that the distinction has to do with serotonin production. This neurotransmitter is responsible for communication among nerve cells which results in behaviors like mood and low serotonin production or transmission is linked to depression. What the Essex study found is that optimists actually have a genetic safeguard against serotonin reduction. A mutation on the gene that produces a protein that transports serotonin -- two long variations of the gene, inherited from both parents -- prevents serotonin buildup at nerve receptor junctions, thus allowing for freer serotonin flow and hence, a positive outlook.

What's absolutely depressing about the finding -- and not in a serotonin-depleted way -- is that it means having an optimistic outlook on life is as much a genetic crap shoot as being a redhead. Which means those of us who find positive outlooks irritating can carry on wallowing in our cynical misery unfettered by guilt that we're not trying to be sunny.

More great stuff on HowStuffWorks.com: Can we treat mental illness with hallucinogens? How fMRI Works How Depression Works