Monday, January 7, 2013

Optimism: A Strength You Can Develop


Back in 1994 I completed the self-assessment in Martin Seligman’s now-classic book, Learned Optimism. With most quizzes, I answer the questions, think about the interpretation for a few minutes and promptly forget about it.

Not this time.

The insights I gained from that thought-provoking test had a profound, lasting effect on the way I think about and explain what happens to me in life.

Dr. Seligman helped me understand that the way you talk to yourself after an event – whether it’s a positive or negative experience – impacts the way you view yourself and the control you have over your life. He calls it your “explanatory” style, and the good news is, it’s not set in concrete.

If you currently tend to see the world through the eyes of a pessimist, you can learn to alter your perspective so that you acquire a more balanced view.

So how does he define the differences in the explanatory styles of an optimist and a pessimist? There are three related areas.

1. TIME: Permanent vs. Temporary

Will this event persist, or is it just a short-term phenomenon?

Optimists tend to explain positive events as permanent and pervasive (“I’m always lucky”) whereas a pessimist uses language that reflects a temporary condition (“I guess it’s just my lucky day”).

Conversely, when something negative happens, an optimist explains it as temporary (“You don’t seem to be listening right now”), while a pessimist uses words like “always” and “never” (“You never listen to me”).

2. SPACE: Specific vs. Universal

Are you able to isolate the effects of an undesirable incident, or does it impact everything else that happens in your life?

Pessimists will take one bad experience and allow it to influence everything else around them. As Dr. Seligman says, “When one thread of their lives snaps, the whole fabric unravels.” For instance, if they experience a disappointment or setback on the job, those at home can end up paying the price.

Optimists, on the other hand, are more likely to look at a specific incident and detach it from other aspects of their lives. They don’t conclude that a failure in one area means they are incompetent or inadequate in all others.

3. FOCUS: Internal vs. External 

This area relates to personal responsibility and blame. Do you blame yourself, or do you blame the outside world?

The key is to understand who and what you are responsible for.

If an event is beyond your control, it makes sense to take the optimist’s approach and recognize that you could not influence the outcome. It would be inappropriate for you to blame yourself, but that’s exactly what pessimists tend to do when these kinds of situations happen. The effect is that an optimist’s self-esteem stays intact while the pessimist’s suffers a serious blow because of unwarranted self-criticism.

On the other hand, there are many times you can influence the position you find yourself in. Optimists will assume personal responsibility and do what they can, whereas pessimists will put themselves in the role of victim by blaming external factors for their plight.

If you recognize yourself in any of the pessimist’s reactions described here, there’s good news. You have the power and ability to condition yourself to think and behave with greater optimism. Use these strategies to make the transition to a more positive, balanced way of viewing yourself and the world:
  • Recognize when you have the power to exercise control over your environment, and then take action. Don’t look around for someone else to rescue you, and don’t play the blame game.

  • Dispute the internal criticism if your negative thoughts attack your worth as a person. Challenge this line of thinking by presenting evidence that contradicts the thought. Prove to yourself that what you’re saying is factually incorrect by listing other situations where you have had positive results.

  • Learn to encourage yourself after a setback, just as you would a good friend. Monitor what you say to yourself, and keep the internal dialogue positive. 
As Dr. Seligman wisely states: “Changing the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks that life deals all of us is the central skill of optimism.” 

2 comments:

Dick Ingersoll said...

I really enjoyed this post!

I am frequently fascinated by how different people interpret things in their life and this has given me some insight I did not previously have. Now if you can help me understand how liberals and conservatives see things so differently or Christians and Muslims then... I'll really be excited.

Meredith Bell said...

Dick, I appreciate your positive feedback. There are many other groups that hold opposing points of view (e.g., low fat/high carbs vs high fat/low carb). In many cases, they have strongly held beliefs that they're unwilling to budge from. Some are based on facts but some are based on beliefs they've accepted as fact - and the more deeply ingrained, the more challenging it is to consider other perspectives.