The Different Explanatory Styles of Optimism and Pessimism
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â€œIf you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.â€ ~Â Peace Pilgrim.Â Â
â€œHaving a positive mental attitude is asking how something can be done rather than saying it can’t be done.â€ ~ Bo Bennett.
Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, and legendary researcher in the field of optimism and depression, has discovered that what differentiates optimism from pessimism is personal explanatory style.
Your explanatory style is how you explain the events that happen to you. It is a routine habit of thinking that we are often unaware of. It often causes us to assess events inaccurately and jump to erroneous conclusions.
There are three facets to the explanatory style â€“ often known as the three Pâ€™s â€“ Personalization, Permanence, and Pervasiveness. Each one explains three questions we ask ourselves about events in our lives.
Letâ€™s consider two simple everyday events.
A negative one: You pass Mary in the corridor at work, and smilingly say hello. Mary does not respond to you, and in fact looks rather severe.
A positive one: A co-worker, Pam, whom you do not know very well brings you a piece of her birthday cake.
Personalization basically answers the question â€œWho caused this situation?â€ A pessimist will blame himself for Maryâ€™s lack of response. He will think that Mary does not like him or that Mary was being deliberately rude in an attempt to offend him. An optimist, in contrast, will not blame himself for Maryâ€™s lack of response. He will think that Mary is probably preoccupied with something else and did not notice his greeting. He will not take it personally.
With regards to the positive situation, an optimist will conclude that Pam thinks he is a nice person and that is why she brought him cake. A pessimist will think that Pam is a nice person and probably just had a piece of cake left over so she gave it to him.
In general, pessimists will blame themselves for negative situations and attribute positive situations to something external to themselves. Meanwhile, optimists take credit for positive situations and attribute negative situations to something external to themselves. Obviously, this implies that optimists have a more positive subjective experience.
Permanence basically answers the question â€œHow long will this situation last?â€ In the negative situation, the pessimist will think that Mary will always dislike him. Meanwhile the optimist will conclude that Mary will probably be friendlier tomorrow.
In the positive situation, it is the reverse. The optimist will think that Pam will always think well of him and do nice things for him. Meanwhile, the pessimist will think that Pamâ€™s kindness to him was an isolated bit of good luck that is unlikely to be repeated in the future.
In general, pessimists think that bad situations will last forever and good situations are just isolated occurrences. Pessimists often will say things such as â€œI always get stuck in a traffic jamâ€, or â€œI never get a lucky breakâ€, or â€œNo one will ever like meâ€. Optimists on the other hand, treat bad events as isolated events and expect things to beÂ better in the future. When an optimist has a tough day, he will respond with â€œTomorrow will be better.â€ They treat good events as having a more permanent nature. They will often say â€œThings always work out for meâ€, or â€œPeople are friendly and helpful in most circumstances.â€
Pervasiveness basically answers the question â€œHow much of my life does this situation affect?â€ In the negative situation, the pessimist will think that no one at the office likes him. He might even extrapolate the situation to other areas of his life, like church and school, and think that no one at all likes him. The optimist on the hand will treat the negative situation just in that sphere. He will note that other people in the office like him and he has lots of friends outside the office anyway so he must be likable. This was just one person and does not extend to the rest of his life.
In the positive situation, again theÂ reactionsÂ are reversed. The optimist will take Pamâ€™s friendliness as an indication that he is a likeable person and that most people will like him. The pessimist will limit the good event to just that one sphere â€“ he will think that Pamâ€™s kindness is rare and that most people are not that nice.
In general, pessimists think that bad situations will affect most areas of their life and will extrapolate a bad event to the other areas of his life. Optimists however will think that bad situations are limited just to that single situation and will not extrapolate it to the rest of his life. However, the optimist will extrapolate the good situation to the other areas of his life, and instead of saying things such as â€œI am smart at mathâ€ will say â€œI am smartâ€. Of course by now, you realize that the pessimist will isolate the good event to just that one sphere of life. The pessimist will be more likely to say â€œI am good at this topic in mathâ€ rather than â€œI am smart at math in generalâ€.
Pessimistic vs. Optimistic thinking
Clearly, the pessimist has a tendency to think that bad situations are his fault, will always happen to him and will affect everything in his life, while the optimist will think that bad situations are not his fault, are just an isolated incident and affects only that isolated item.
The pessimist conversely has a tendency to think that good situations are not caused by anything he has done, are a fluke and will not be repeated, while the optimist believes that he has caused the good situation to happen, good things always happen to him and they happen in every area of his life.Â
The Optimism Pessimism Continuum
Optimism and pessimism are not characteristics that you either have or do not have. They operate on a continuum: there are degrees of optimism and degrees of pessimism. The midpoint on this continuum is realism, where you explain events neither optimistically nor pessimistically but just explain them as they are.
People can be pessimistic in one area of life and optimistic in another area. However, many people have a general tendency to think either optimistically or pessimistically. Most people have an overall optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style.
By now you probably have a pretty good idea if your explanatory style is optimistic or pessimistic. However, if you want to take a questionnaire to be sure you can do so at this link.
In a subsequent article I will discuss the implications of explanatory style, its relationship to resilience and how you can set about changing it.
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- How to become an Optimist – Part I
- How to become an Optimist Part II: Disputing Pessimistic Beliefs
- How to become an Optimist Part III: Avoid Thinking ErrorsÂ
- How to be Happy – Training yourself to enjoy life
- The Power of Realistic Positive Thinking
- Your Capacity for Change
- Optimism vs. Pessimism
- Optimism & Resilience
- Coping with Stress – Part I
- How to Fight Depression Naturally
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