Monday, October 17, 2011

Avoiding the P's of Pessimism

We all know that the ways we think about things have a powerful influence on our emotional reactions, lasting mood states, and ability to cope. This is especially true in the face of set-backs.

In Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman describes how optimists and pessimists think differently about such things - something he calls their "explanatory styles." Specifically, he identifies three ways that we explain things that happen to us that influence how resilient we are:

1) Permanence 

Pessimists believe the causes of set-backs are permanent, and therefore that bad things will keep happening. You can tell these kinds of thoughts because they contain words like "always" or "never." In contrast, optimists see the causes of set-backs as temporary or situational; their explanations include words like "sometimes," "this time," or other qualifiers. As a result, optimists are more likely to try again after a failure.

The reverse is true when explaining good things that happen. Optimists attribute good things to permanent causes, such as traits or abilities. Pessimists attribute good things to transitory causes - unusual luck, someone else's mood/effort/error, the phase of the moon. As a result, optimists are more likely to keep trying after a success, while pessimists tend to stop trying, seeing the success as a fluke.

2) Pervasiveness

Pervasiveness refers to how much a bad (or good) event in one area of life colors your perception of other areas - for example, does failure at work make you feel like a failure at home. Pessimists use universal explanations for a failure, and therefore feel hopeless about success in any area of their lives. Words like, always, all, never, none, and references to traits are a tip-off. In contrast, optimists are more likely to attribute a failure to a specific cause, about the particular circumstance or area of their lives, and therefore continue to feel hopeful about success in other areas. For example, they may attribute work failure to a bad job, a bad economy, or choosing the wrong profession, while still expecting to succeed in other fields or settings.

Again, the reverse is also true: optimists tend to explain success in universal terms, and a success will result in further efforts and more positive expectations in all areas of life. In contrast, pessimists attribute successes to specific causes, and therefore do not feel any more hopeful about other endeavors.

3) Personalization

Pessimists tend to blame themselves for the bad things that happen (and often have low self-esteem, as a result). In contrast, optimists tend to blame bad things on external events, and so don't feel any worse about themselves when bad things happen. And the reverse: optimists take responsibility for good things that happen - see them as the result of personal factors - while pessimists attribute good things to external factors. Therefore, good things boost the self-esteem of optimists, but don't affect the self-esteem of pessimists.

The good news is that these patterns of thinking are learned - and can be unlearned! More to come on what Seligman has to say about becoming an optimist.

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