Seligman, a well-known researcher in the area of optimism, summarizes the essence of optimism:
“Changing the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks that life deals us is the central skill of optimism.” (Seligman, 1991, p.15)
You will notice that being optimistic is not just being positive during the good times, but also being able to maintain positive thoughts about ourselves, even during life’s setbacks.
Optimistic Attributional Style
Sometimes we believe that being optimistic means closing our eyes to things that are negative, or pretending that an event/situation is okay when it’s not. Research shows, however, that optimists are usually more rational and realistic than pessimists. Pessimists may tend to blame themselves, when, in fact, the problem is outside of them. Optimists are more likely to realistically evaluate an event, and to see the cause of the event as being external to them when it was something beyond their control. They also tend to see a negative event as a temporary setback, and to see a setback as affecting only a small area of their lives or their self-worth:
“It’s the machine (or them), it’s temporary, it only affects one small part of me”.
Being optimistic does not mean that we shouldn’t take responsibility for our actions, but we shouldn’t automatically take responsibility when there may be a whole variety of other causal factors. For example, I shouldn’t assume that Bill did not wave back simply because of something I did. There are many other possible causal factors (not wearing glasses, bad day at work, just received troublesome news from home, etc.).
In this optimistic cycle our thoughts lead us to connect more with people and to take action. In the earlier pessimistic cycle, our thoughts led to negative feelings that led to withdrawal and inaction. The optimistic cycle is often associated with better health.
Health Benefits of OptimismHealth Benefits of Optimism
better health habitsbetter immune functioning and fewer illnessesless severe illnessesfewer symptoms of poor healthfaster recovery from illness and injurybetter adjustment to serious illnessdecreased psychological illness and distressa tendency to live longer
The following table summarizes the differences between optimists and pessimists responses to a negative event. See if you can find where you fall most of the time. Note: You may find that it varies from situation to situation as well.
Optimists… Pessimists…Aversive/negative Experience Look at negative outcomes more positively and don’t even see most events as “negative”. Scan for negative experiences and tend to find (or think they find) what they’re looking for.AttributionsPersonalization: Externalizing or Personalizing Externalize: They give themselves the benefit of the doubt. They don’t automatically take personal responsibility for events and outcomes where there wasn’t a clear cause or causer. Over-personalize: A tendency to solely blame yourself despite the existence of numerous other possible causal factors and contributors.AttributionsPervasiveness: Specific or Global Don’t blame their whole being for certain mistakes. E.g., forgetting something at home does not mean that you are an idiot. Tend to catastrophize by extending a specific situation to how they are all the time
everywhere.AttributionsPermanence: Temporary or Permanent After deciding they have a role or responsibility in a negative outcome, they realize they have a problem or deficiency and resolve to work on that problem, or to cut losses, and benefit from self-perceived strengths. Continue to catastrophize and resign themselves to the fact the problem is unsolvable.Dispute Weigh all the possible explanations they can find. If they find they are at fault, then they accept that they did something wrong.
They may decide that the issue was not that important, or they may resolve to work on the parts that are workable or preventable in the future. Don’t dispute …they tend to think of the first thing they can say to themselves to blame themselves, and they continue to dwell on their shortcomings.Consequences/Resolution Optimists accept that something unfortunate may have happened and they take ownership of their own level of responsibility, resolve and plan to do things different, and move on. Pessimists feel terrible about the hopelessness of the situation, give up, and tell themselves there is nothing they can do.Although consequences tend to occur prior to disputing, the goal is to learn to dispute prior to experiencing any negative and maladaptive feelings.
Optimism Can be Learned: Self Talk and the Path of Optimism
There are two main steps to learning to think more optimistically:
Identify when you are making negative and pessimistic attributions.Evaluate/Dispute your unrealistic attributions.Look back at your answer for the hallway exercise in the Strait of Attributions section. Did you make any negative or pessimistic attributions? If you did, follow the instructions below to learn how to evaluate your thoughts and dispute the unrealistic attributions.
How to Dispute
Thought: My coworker or acquaintance didn’t say “hi” in the hallway, therefore she/he doesn’t like me. There must be something wrong with me.Firstly, consider that your thought is just a thought…you can agree or disagree with yourself. Often people will criticize us or tell us something, and we don’t agree with them. We can just say it’s their opinion and disagree with them. We can also do the same with ourselves, especially if we know that we tend to be more pessimistic.Evaluate your thought or attribution and see how realistic it is. (People often find it helpful to do this exercise in written form – when our thoughts are down on paper, it is often easier to evaluate and challenge them.) If, once you have evaluated the thought, you find that you are not being realistic, dispute it! Use evidence, alternative explanations, and likely implications to fuel your argument:
Evidence: Have there been times when this same event occurred and nothing negative came out of it? What other evidence is there to support my attribution? Did this person do anything else to lead me to think the way I am? Is there a way of getting a clearer answer (e.g., talking to the person) instead of speculating?
Alternatives: What are some other possible reasons that this event occurred or that this person may have acted this way? (For example, he didn’t see me because he forgot his glasses.)
Implications/Importance: Does it really matter? Is this really important? Am I catastrophizing and blowing this situation out of proportion? What’s the worst that can happen? These questions help us to put the situation into perspective, and decide what level of action is needed.Continue to dispute. If you have worked through steps 1 & 2, and have decided that your negative thoughts are unrealistic, then you will likely need to challenge your thoughts, not just once, but several times. If you have gotten into a habit of thinking negatively about yourself and about situations, it can take quite awhile to break that habit. Be patient with yourself (you didn’t start thinking this way overnight!).At some point, you may feel that you just need a break from the negative thoughts and from the work of disputation. At this point distraction may be a useful option. Exercise can be a very beneficial distraction (as well as generally good for our health!). There are other options as well. For example, we can write down what is bothering us and tell ourselves to put it away until later. We can call a friend and talk or go out. Music can also help in calming and distracting us. Often when we return to the issue, it is less overwhelming, and we have renewed energy to dispute if we need to do so.