Explanatory Styles: Choosing Optimism


There is no doubt that less reputable sources have peddled the idea of optimism as positive affirmations, rose-colored glasses or a workshop where we all hold hands and visualize the good in the world generating enough positive energy to cancel out the bad. However, the field of positive psychology has uncovered that optimism is not just an affirmation or a transmission of positive energy. It is a cognitive skill set we can use and build to deal with positive and negative experiences.

Optimism:happiness pie chart

Optimism is our inner dialogue – how we explain and internalize positive and negative experiences in our lives and how we perceive our ability and capability to overcome the negative and cultivate the positive. Research shows that circumstances of our lives, i.e. our paycheck, material possessions or education, dictate only 10 percent of our happiness, which ultimately leaves our perception of our lives, experiences, jobs, intelligence, abilities and capabilities to dictate our happiness. And, as a result, we have the power to change our perception at any time we choose.

Consider that depression is the ultimate expression of pessimism, and that severe depression is 10 times more prevalent today than it was 50 years ago. It affects women twice as often as men, and it now strikes a full decade earlier in life on average than it did a generation ago. This makes learning about optimism a worthy idea.

Martin Seligman, the pioneer and author of the bestseller “Learned Optimism,” describes the defining characteristics of a pessimist.
“The pessimist,” he writes, “believes bad events:

  • Will last a long time
  • Will undermine everything they do
  • Are their own fault.

When bad things happen – a tax audit, marital squabble or a frown from an employer – he imagines the worst: bankruptcy, jail, divorce, dismissal. He is prone to depression and long bouts of listlessness […]”

“Whereas the Optimist confronted with the same hard knocks believes:

  • Defeat is just a temporary set-back
  • The causes are confined to this one case
  • It is not their fault; circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it on
  • They perceive it as a challenge to try harder”

There is hope. Pessimism is escapable and pessimists can learn to be optimists – not by singing happy songs or just reciting positive affirmations, but by learning a new set of cognitive (thought-based) skills.

To begin, pinpoint those pessimistic belief systems and explanatory styles in yourself. When you encounter a negative event, pay attention to your internal dialogue – what beliefs do you assign? For example: You got a bad grade on a test. All of the following could have contributed to this: you are stupid, the professor is unfair, the test was unusually hard, you are too old to be in school, you didn’t sleep very well the night before. Search for the explanations that are changeable (you didn’t sleep well the night before), specific (the test was unusually hard) and not personal (the professor is unfair). Which belief did you choose? Consciously challenge your own natural inclinations: Ask yourself what is the evidence of this belief? What does this belief imply? Is this belief useful?

Write your experiences down. Note the moments when you do not succumb to the self-defeating explanations. It may take some time, however, if you exert the necessary effort to challenge these thoughts, you will learn a new skill that will make you less likely to experience depression and bounce back quicker from negative experiences.

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