Some Road-Tested Ways to Kick the Pessimistic Mindset Habit
How mixtapes and sweaty workouts re-calibrated my pessimistic mindset as a teen.
Posted Oct 02, 2019
I started running when I was 17 and never stopped. It was the summer of 1983. My coming-of-age anthem that summer was “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” The only albums I’d listen to were Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park and the first Madonna LP. I played this music nonstop and pounded these songs into my head when I ran."—Christopher Bergland from The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (2007)
There is growing evidence that optimism may increase longevity. On the flip side, extreme pessimism is statistically correlated with premature death. A few days ago, I wrote a post that was intended to encourage readers to be less pessimistic so they could live longer, healthier lives.
Unfortunately, my attempts to promote optimism triggered one anonymous reader to comment, "I am a pessimist. I don't want to live long. There is no point and it all is going to hell in a handbasket. Living longer is not my goal." Instead of responding with a brief message squeezed into a comment box, I decided to write an in-depth two-part series that "Anonymous" (and other readers who are overcome by pessimism) might find useful.
Yesterday, I wrote the first post, Learning to "Expect Nothing" Reshaped My Pessimistic Mindset, which aspires to give anyone who self identifies as a so-called "pessimist" some practical advice on how to become a bit more optimistic—while simultaneously dissuading unrealistic Pollyannaism.
The post you're reading now is the second installment of my "how-to boost optimism and reduce pessimism" two-part series based primarily on first-person, autobiographical experiences.
As I've discussed candidly over the years, I suffered from debilitating clinical depression and all-consuming pessimism throughout my early adolescence. In addition to getting much-needed help from a professional therapist, the trajectory of my life put me in the right place at the right time to re-calibrate my pessimistic mindset in the summer of 1983.
In June of '83, I was 17 and lived across from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir (near Boston College), which had a dirt path around the perimeter that was always packed with joggers. I'd watch them from my bedroom window with disdain. Jogging was a fad that really bugged me. From my perspective—as a cynical and jaded teenager—exercise fanatics were neurotic and insipid.
During the first three years of high school, I purposely avoided any type of sports or physical activity. All the varsity jocks viewed me as a 98-pound-weakling and labeled me a "stoner," which was fine with me. I liked being a loner and didn't want to be a part of their clique.
My favorite pastime during this era was doing bong hits and listening to The Wall by Pink Floyd. I'd crank the volume when "Comfortably Numb" came on and curl up in the fetal position under the covers and "study my pain" with the curtains drawn to keep out any sunlight.
I smoked excessive amounts of marijuana during early adolescence. At the time, I was too burned out to notice a tipping point when getting high stopped making me happy and morphed into a severe case of amotivational syndrome and major depressive disorder (MDD). By June of 1983, I was at an all-time low; I had no desire to get out of bed, take a shower, or leave my room.
This all changed one sunny afternoon when, for some reason, I decided to get out of the house and go see a weekday matinee at the Circle Cinema where "Flashdance" happened to be playing. Although I didn't have much interest in seeing this movie, I paid my $2 admission and was glad to be alone in a dark, air-conditioned theater on a hot summer day. Unexpectedly, something shifted inside me the minute the film started to roll and I heard the soundtrack for the first time.
As you can see in the video above, it's clear that the cinematographer (Donald Peterman) arranged to have blinding rays of light shine directly into the camera lens in practically every scene. The audio-visual pizzazz in songs like "Maniac" and the "scrappy, underdog prevails" message of the screenplay sparked something that made me want to put on a pair of leg warmers, cut the sleeves off my t-shirts, and start moving my body.
When the movie ended, I headed straight to a local record store to buy the soundtrack and 12" John "Jellybean" Benitez "Flashdance" remix. When I got home, I took The Wall off my turntable for the first time in months and started dancing around my room (like no one was watching) to Flashdance. The icing on my musical motivation cake was Madonna releasing her first LP that July and seeing her perform at a small dance club across from Fenway Park before she was famous.
As mentioned in the introduction, I made a mixtape with Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, plus Irene Cara's anthem and started jogging every day. I also stopped smoking weed. Within a few weeks, my outlook on life slowly became brighter, the depression subsided, and my mindset shifted from a predisposition to always see the glass as half-empty, to being able to identify some silver linings.
Because my late father, Richard Bergland (1932-2007) was a neuroscientist who conducted lab experiments to identify how behavior and environment change the brain, I was predisposed to make myself a human guinea pig in some real-world studies. My research question: What dose of exercise and musical choices have the strongest impact on shifting my psychological mindset to the bright side?
Based on anecdotal evidence, there is no doubt in my mind that the combination of vigorous exercise and blasting self-selected songs that hit a raw emotional nerve on a visceral level have the power to reshape my brain and reboot my pessimistic mindset on demand.
From a neuroscience perspective, there's a ton of empirical evidence from the past two decades that corroborates the power of physical activity to stimulate the birth of new neurons (neurogenesis) and optimize brain plasticity.
Exercise improves gray matter volume/structure and white matter functional connectivity between different brain regions. Re-configuring these architectural blueprints and neural networks is correlated with changes in cognition that influence psychological well-being and mindset.
In closing, one key ingredient for effectively using inspiring music combined with vigorous exercise that needs more research is the role that listening to really loud music via one's headphones seems to have on re-calibrating mindset.
Anecdotally, I know that when I'm jogging or doing HIIT workouts, the playlist has to be blasting at maximum volume to trigger changes in my brain that make me feel really good. The moment I stop high-intensity exercise, I immediately have to turn the volume down a few notches.
From a public health perspective, I don't recommend playing music at a volume that might cause permanent hearing damage. That said, I'll leave you with some of Colin A. McKinnon's independent scholarly writing on how loud music might affect the brain:
"Although other aspects of music, such as pitch, timbre, melody, lyrical content, etc. have all been studied in various forms by academic researchers, comparatively little research into the relevance and effects of loudness has been performed. As Deena Weinstein states, "Loudness is meant to overwhelm, to sweep the listener into the sound, and then to lend the listener the sense of power that the sound provides."
This can be thought of as essentially a catalytic process; by absorbing the power through the loudness, the listener's own energy is activated through an intense emotional response and activation of primal areas in the brain. In evolutionary terms, we respond to loudness as "exciting" because of the implied physicality – without amplification, it takes some physical effort to produce loud sounds, and we still respond to loudness as (if it were) actual physical energy."
In my opinion, McKinnon is on to something with his novel theories on musical loudness and the brain. Hopefully, if you're overcome by pessimism for any reason, some of the personal insights and neuroscience presented here will help boost your "realistic optimism."
Alan Wells and Ernest A. Hakanen. "The Emotional Use of Popular Music by Adolescents." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly (First published: September 1, 1991) DOI: 10.1177/107769909106800315
Neil P. McAngus Todd "Vestibular Responses to Loud Dance Music: A Physiological Basis of the “Rock and Roll Threshold”?" The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America (First published online: December 29, 1999) DOI: 10.1121/1.428317
Valorie N Salimpoor, Mitchel Benovoy, Kevin Larcher, Alain Dagher & Robert J. Zatorre. "Anatomically Distinct Dopamine Release during Anticipation and Experience of Peak Emotion to Music." Nature Neuroscience (First published: January 9, 2011 ) DOI: 10.1038/nn.2726
Marcelo Bigliassi, Costas I. Karageorghis, George K. Hoy, Georgia S. Layne. "The Way You Make Me Feel: Psychological and Cerebral Responses to Music during Real-Life Physical Activity." Psychology of Sport and Exercise (First published online: February 3, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2018.01.010
Matthew J. Stork, Costas I. Karageorghis, Kathleen A. Martin Ginis. "Let’s Go: Psychological, Psychophysical, and Physiological Effects of Music During Sprint Interval Exercise." Psychology of Sport and Exercise (First published online: June 12, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.101547
Christopher G. Ballmann, Daniel J. Maynard, Zachary N. Lafoon, Mallory R. Marshall, Tyler D. Williams and Rebecca R. Rogers. "Effects of Listening to Preferred versus Non-Preferred Music on Repeated Wingate Anaerobic Test Performance." Effects of Music in Sport and Exercise (First published: July 29, 2019) DOI: 10.3390/sports7080185
Katherine Wu, Jeff Anderson, Jennifer Townsend, Todd Frazier, Anthony Brandt & Christof Karmonik. "Characterization of Functional Brain Connectivity Towards Optimization of Music Selection for Therapy: A fMRI Study." International Journal of Neuroscience (First published online: March 1, 2019) DOI: 10.1080/00207454.2019.1581189