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Successful Living > Real Life Lessons > Optimism

Real Life Lessons

by C.V. Doner, PhD

Optimism - a sense of hope that provides the resiliency to bounce back from life's invariable setbacks is a basic requirement for living the "abundant" life with joy and passion.

The basic difference between optimists and pessimists is that optimists believe a setback is temporary, a handy belief that facilitates their getting back on their feet and trying once again. Hope remains eternal for optimists.

Pessimists, on the other hand, give up relatively easily. According to one of the world's leading experts on optimism, Dr. Martin Seligman, pessimists "believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault."

What makes the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? If we examine Seligman's quote above we find the three "P's", which Seligman identifies as part of our "explanatory style" - the way we interpret or explain daily events to ourselves. First, according to Seligman, pessimists believe "events will last a long time." This is essentially a belief that setbacks are "permanent rather than temporary."

Differences might look like:

Optimist: "This diet failed-I'll try a different one."
Pessimist: "This diet failed - I'll never find any diet that will work."

Optimist: "My boss is a truly difficult - this really isn't the work environment that I desire - I'll find a new job."
Pessimist: "I hate my job and my boss. It will never get better. I'll never enjoy my work."

Optimist: "I'm not getting along well now with my kids, but given time, I know that things will improve."
Pessimist: "My kids don't love or appreciate me and they never will."

The next "P" stands for "pervasiveness," as in, "bad events will undermine everything they do." Pessimists, when explaining events to themselves this way, make a "universal principal" out of something an optimist experiences as an exception to the rule. Pessimists might tell themselves something like this: "I just got laid off at work today. My whole life is jinxed. Now I can't enjoy anything else including my family, friends or home. I'll just drink or watch TV." Meanwhile, the eternally sunny optimist has a much different outlook. "I got laid off today. I'm disappointed, but I have my friends, my health, my family and other interests. I'm actually happy I'll have more time with them until something better comes along."

One more example:

Pessimist: "Jack rejected me. No man will ever love me."
Optimist: "Jill betrayed me. That's due to a lot of her own background and insecurities. I need to find a more balanced mature woman who is secure with herself and with me."

Seligman's third "P" of explanatory style is "personalization," as in "bad events are their own fault." Seligman further defines this process as one of "internalizing," (blaming themselves as opposed to optimists who "externalize" by blaming others rather than themselves).

A pessimist internalizing might tell herself: "Eric didn't find me attractive. I must be ugly." A hopeful optimist, on the other hand, doesn't blame herself, but labels Eric as clueless as to her attributes. Her attitude can be summed up as, "Who needs a tasteless guy like that"?

The pessimist, failing a challenge of any sort (job interview, test, relationship, argument, etc) has only one person to blame--himself. He is simply not smart or good enough. Faced with the very same challenge, the optimist, while willing to take responsibility (did I prepare properly for that interview or test? Was I rested and awake?) will find external factors that influenced his performance (the test was mostly in my weak areas-I'll do a better job preparing next time.)

With this explanation style, failures are not internalized to invalidate ones self-esteem, but are credited to temporary misfortune that can be easily remedied - more study, more sleep, etc.

The bottom line is, whether you experience life as an optimist or a pessimist may depend on how you interpret and explain life's little "hiccups" to yourself. If you're not sure if you're an optimist or a pessimist, Seligman provides some very helpful tests in his book, "Learned Optimism." By the way, the good news is, as reflected in the title, you can begin to change how you interpret events in your day.

Here's a few guidelines for getting started:

Begin to notice what events, comments or situations you react to and how. Keep a record, in a journal, of each reaction. Then write down exactly how you felt and why. What did you tell yourself? Sure this is work-so you have to be a little bit of an optimist to have enough hope that it will help! Pay careful attention to the three "P's." How are you interpreting each experience - as personal, pervasive or permanent? Write it down! Then beside your entry write out a positive alternative explanation-something for instance that an optimist might say!

After two weeks, carefully go over your list. Which explanation (optimistic or pessimistic) makes you feel better? Which one supports your goals better? Since none of us are God, we often don't truly understand other people's motives or actions or what causes most events to happen. We don't have the foggiest idea why "bad things happen to good people". In reality the only control we have over many events, particularly the way people react to us, is how we choose to interpret them. How we explain things to ourselves. Since our interpretation could be right or could be wrong, why not choose the more positive possibility?

Choosing a more positive explanation is also a very effective way to talk more kindly and supportively to yourself. When the little voice in your head runs through its multitude of negative interpretations and judgments about every single event, every second of your day, it's called "self-talk." Self-talk has grown to be a topic of great interest as psychologists have realized that words (and the pictures they create in our mind) are very powerful forces in determining our attitude and predisposition, and consequently our behavior. This equation looks something like this: words=emotional response=attitude=behavior.

So the key to enhancing your mood or your actions, as experts in neuro-linguistic programming point out, is to choose words which will "explain" or interpret events positively and therefore contribute to supportive emotions, attitudes and behaviors. In other words, moving from pessimism to optimism.