Gratitude, Optimism, and Pessimism

Gratitude and optimism are important elements in the pursuit of sustainable high performance.  The polyvagal informed lens further informs the development of these attributes.

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Within the domain of performance psychology there is frequent conversation regarding optimistic and pessimistic mindsets and their impact on performance.  Within this paradigm, the optimistic mindset is strongly preferred, particularly in order to persevere through challenges and difficult times.    The commonly described concept is that when obstacles arise, as they inevitably will, the characteristics of the optimistic mindset are needed in order to endure through such times.  In contrast, a pessimistic outlook may make it easier to give up or quit during such situations.  Typically, optimistic mindset training is accomplished through gratitude practices.  Each of these concepts will be described in this article and then will be considered from the polyvagal informed lens.

To begin, it is useful to more fully consider each of these elements.  An optimistic mindset is indicated by the collection of thoughts and perspectives that things will eventually work out for the best.  Even if the current situation is difficult and challenging, there will be a turn of events in a positive direction.  In contrast, the pessimistic viewpoint is characterized by the mindset that everything will eventually turn out for the worst, regardless of the current situation.  As mentioned above, the optimistic mindset is favored in the context of high performance.  Amongst the reasons for this is the necessity of perseverance over time which invariably requires working through obstacles and setbacks.

The next important consideration is how best to train the preferred optimistic mindset.  The common recommendation is a regular gratitude practice.  This consists of frequent, ideally daily, recognition of positive occurrences and situations in which feelings of thankfulness arise.  The more it is possible to truly experience the feeling of gratitude, the more effective the practice is thought to be.  One potential means through which this practice may exert its effects is that the identification of gratitude provoking events in life, of which there are typically more than we realize, leads to a change within the perception of the brain such that the more we recognize positive events, the more similar scenarios we perceive and identify.  This is likely accomplished through neuroplasticity.  It is interesting to note that this effect is similar in nature to the polyvagal informed concept of physiological state as an intervening variable, in which the current state exerts an impact on the way in which cues and stimuli are neurocepted.

As with many of the other mind-based skills and strategies associated with high performance, it is informative to consider their training and application from a polyvagal informed perspective.  This will be the focus of the remainder of the article.  While the common recommendation for implementation of a gratitude practice can be effective, there is typically limited discussion regarding the biology that underlies gratitude, optimistic, and pessimistic mindsets and what can lead to variation between these two viewpoints.  Most, if not all, of us have experienced shifts between optimism and pessimism.  Furthermore, what is the biological foundation underlying the practice of gratitude that makes it effective?  These questions will be considered from a polyvagal informed perspective.

Beginning with the gratitude practice, it is important to understand the biological mechanism by which this practice exerts its effect.  With this recognition in place, we are better able to leverage our biology in realizing the benefits of a regular gratitude practice.  From the polyvagal informed perspective, it is first important to acknowledge that a ventral vagal stabilized state is important in order to recognize the positive events and situations in life and truly feel and experience gratitude.  This has been well described by Stephen Porges, PhD.  It can be readily appreciated that it is necessary for our biology to feel safe and connected in order to recognize and, more importantly, experience and feel gratitude.   This is even more evident when considered from the alternate perspective.  If we are in a protective or survival state of sympathetic or dorsal vagal activation, there is little benefit from recognizing those scenarios for which we can be grateful.  Within these states, our biology is focused on protection and survival, making gratitude a luxury that cannot be afforded.

The above understanding can be further extended into the recognition that if a ventral vagal state is necessary for expression of gratitude, then the presence of gratefulness is an indicator of ventral vagal activation.  Furthermore, it may be possible to increase ventral vagal tone through the implementation of a gratitude practice.  Dr. Porges has described that gratitude itself can stimulate the vagus nerve.  The recognition of those events and scenarios for which we can be grateful also, likely, provides strong cues of safety and connection, thereby increasing ventral vagal activation.  As discussed previously, this likely then increases the likelihood for identification of further sources of gratitude.

With a polyvagal informed perspective of gratitude in mind, the implications for cultivation of the optimistic mindset can be further explored.  Given that gratitude is both an indicator of the ventral vagal state as well as a means through which to increase ventral vagal activation, it can be postulated that gratitude practices can be used to develop an optimistic mindset, which then may be an emergent property of ventral vagal stabilized states.  In fact the common description of the outlook and viewpoint of the ventral vagal state is typically one of hopefulness and the existence of many possibilities.  This maps quite directly and consistently with an optimistic mindset.  

The converse, regarding the pessimistic mindset is also informative.  Within this viewpoint is the outlook that things will turn out for the worst.  This also maps in alignment with the common descriptions of the viewpoint and outlook which emerges from sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.  The polyvagal informed description of these states being associated with the outlook of high risk, within the sympathetic state, and danger and hopelessness, within the dorsal vagal state, are consistent with the pessimistic mindset.

The application of the above discussion related to the development and reinforcement of the optimistic mindset is of significance.  Given the above discussion, the implementation of skills and strategies from the polyvagal informed toolbox which increase ventral vagal activation will also promote gratitude and an optimistic mindset.  In fact, there is reason to think that an emergent property of ventral vagal stabilized states is gratitude and an optimistic mindset.  The significance of this recognition is that embodiment of the polyvagal informed paradigm will also promote the necessary optimistic mindset for sustainable high performance.

The polyvagal informed understanding of gratitude, as well as optimistic and pessimistic mindsets, is that the skills and strategies already developed within the polyvagal informed toolbox will also likely develop gratitude and an optimistic mindset.  As these are contributing factors for high performance, the embodiment of the polyvagal informed paradigm becomes an important, if not essential, component in the pursuit of sustainable high performance.   This is the foundation of the polyvagal informed Practices of the Healthcare Athlete, allowing for promotion of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  

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Dana, D.  Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.  Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2021.

Dana, D.  Polyvagal Practices: Anchoring The Self in Safety.  New York:  W.W. Nortan & Company, 2023.

Porges, SW.  Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2021.

Porges SW, Porges S.  Our Polyvagal World: How Safety and Trauma Change Us.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2023.

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