Is your company trying to reduce healthcare costs by encouraging your employees to adopt healthy habits? It may want to include having an optimistic world view in its wellness program. (Or not.)

Wellness programs play a role in human capital management

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than 75 percent of disease today—even serious problems like high blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease—are preventable. Maybe that’s why more and more companies are betting that investing in an employee wellness program will reduce their healthcare costs and absenteeism. So far, the long-term impact of these programs is unknown, and there are some indications that any apparent gains in the overall health of the employee deteriorate over time in the absence of any lasting change in lifestyle.

In previous posts, we’ve studied how a change in behavior is reflected by physical changes in the brain, such as the formation of new neural pathways. If we want to encourage lasting changes in employee health, maybe it’s time to apply neuroscience to the challenge. I decided to look into the possibility.

The optimism bias

A Google search for “optimism” will almost immediately retrieve info on neuroscientist Tali Sharot. She studies  “The Optimism Bias.” Sharot and others have found evidence that our brains are hard-wired to make optimistic predictions about our futures, even when the hard facts before us would indicate the contrary.

As Dawkins convincingly states, our brains are survival machines, evolving the way they have precisely because they are very efficient at one critical task—keeping us alive. Perhaps having an optimistic outlook makes us more likely to survive. After all, optimism enables the brain to look ahead and imagine a future. It also makes us brave enough to explore or take a risk, expecting a positive result even when there is little reason to expect such an outcome. Without these life skills and cognitive strategies, our ancestors might have perished.

Your brain on optimism

Thanks to neuroimaging, scientists have identified the source of optimism, the caudate nucleus. This cluster of nerve cells that tells the rest of the brain when something good is about to happen.

Remember Skinner’s dogs? Their caudate nucleuses were working overtime in those experiments. When these cells are communicating with other parts of the brain, we start to envision a positive future event.

But does an optimism bias really make a healthier or more productive workforce?

Up until about a month ago, I could have answered this question with a most confident and perhaps unrealistic “yes.” For the past 20 years or more, most of the literature seems to point out that having a generally positive expectation of the future contributes to a healthier body and greater productivity.

For example, college students whose thoughts were “seeded” with positive descriptions of their own abilities performed better on tests than those were given negative images of their own performance. Or consider a recent article called “The Price of Pessimism,” in which Men’s Health magazine listed multiple medical issues that can be caused or exacerbated by chronic pessimism—or minimized through optimism.

Not so fast, optimists!

But just when it seemed that we had a clear imperative: be optimistic or die too soon, a new study reveals that the opposite may be true. Adults over 65 who predicted a positive outlook for their future health tended to die sooner than those who expected their health to decline.

Hmm! I guess we need to do some more studying on how these neuropathways are affecting us. I’m sure neuroscientists will come up with a tie-breaker soon. Why do I say that? Is it just my unrealistically optimistic brain, spinning a vision of a more positive future than reason should allow? Or is it my relentlessly surviving brain, keeping me safe by giving me hope?

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