Seligman is considered the father of positive psychology, sometimes called the fourth wave of psychology, which asks: what is the science behind what makes humans well?
In the beginning of the book, Seligman describes the difference between optimists and pessimists. According to his studies, optimists achieve more, are healthier, live longer, and (clearly) have happier and more productive lives than pessimists.
And then he offers a test, whereby you can determine your level of optimism.
So here’s me: totally confident that I’m an optimist.
I mean seriously! I’m constantly reminding others (and myself) that if you believe it, you can achieve it! Constantly reading books that are geared toward motivation, affirmation, meditation, you name it, if it’s positive, I’ve read it or have it on my list.
So I take the test, and wouldn’t you believe it: my score reflects a distinctly pessimistic bent.
The worst part is that Seligman argues that those of us with a pessimistic explanatory style (more on that in a minute) are significantly more prone to depression that those with a more optimistic style.
Naturally, I do no react well to this prediction.
Seligman explains that a key to our relative optimism or pessimism lies in the manner by which we explain events, both positive and negative. There are three components to explanatory style:
- Personal-ness (internal vs external)
Let’s take the example of a negative occurrence: let’s say you interview for a leadership role, and don’t get a call back after the interview.
The way you explain this outcome to yourself will reveal your explanatory style:
You might say to yourself:
I always choke in interviews. (permanent) or
I wasn’t focused in the interview because I didn’t sleep well the night before, due to everyone in my household being sick with a cold, including my young child. (temporary)
People in this company are like robots. (pervasive) or
Most of the people I deal with in this company have been really kind and helpful to me. (specific)
I really am not a good interviewer. (internal) or
The interview was in the afternoon, and that manager who met with me was hungry and grumpy. (external)
A totally optimistic explanatory style looks at negative events as temporary, specific, and external.
And a totally pessimistic style considers those events to be permanent, pervasive and internal.
On the other side, an optimistic view of a positive event is likely to be permanent, pervasive and internal, (I always do well, the world is great, I’m pretty awesome) whereas a pessimistic view of a positive event is the opposite (this was dumb luck, I still need to be careful even though things are going well, it’s not really me, this other person gave me a leg up.)
What I realized in reviewing the test and then doing some exercises that follow is that my own explanatory style tends strongly toward the permanent and personal.
I take enormous responsibility for things that do not go well in my life, and less responsibility for things that DO go well. And I have a habit of generalizing (permanence.)
My one (natural) shining spot of optimism is that I do look for a specific reason (or reasons) for a negative event with an eye toward avoiding it in the future.
The stakes are high
As I mentioned earlier, Seligman argues that people with a pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to suffer from depression, ill health, and early death.
They also tend to perform less well then their optimistic counterparts, regardless of skill, experience or natural qualities like talent and intelligence.
Furthermore, studies show that our explanatory style is developed in childhood, and that it typically matches they explanatory style of our mother (presuming we were raised by our mother.)
Given that I am a mother, this information, combined with my own test results, sent a chill down my side.
The tendency toward personalization of the negative showed up immediately as I thought to myself OMG MY KID IS GOING TO BECOME NEGATIVE BECAUSE OF ME!
Fortunately, it turns out that optimism can be practiced and learned, much like any other skill. And there’s a simple exercise to do so.
It’s called ABCDE. These letters stand for:
This is where something happens that you don’t like.
This is what you tell yourself about what just happened. (Where your explanatory style shows up- these are thoughts.)
This is how you FEEL as a result.
This is where you identify the thoughts (beliefs) and dispute them.
This is where you look at how your energy has changed as a result of disputing unhelpful beliefs.
I’ll give you an example:
Recently I’ve begun walking my dog in the morning. She had knee-surgery in April and regular walks are part of her ongoing physical therapy. During the week, we do this walk between 5:45AM and 6:05AM. Other than one other dog-walker who appears to have the same schedule, we rarely see a soul.
Last weekend, I slept in, and we took our walk about 7AM. Everything else was as normal (except it was light out) until we were rounding the last corner before home, and I dropped a bag of her dog poop into a neighbor’s trash can.
Right as I was doing that, the neighbor’s garage door began lifting up. I froze for a minute, wondering if I should pause and say hello or keep on walking. Before the door was fully opened, a man’s voice boomed out from the void:
DON’T DO THAT AGAIN!
USE YOUR OWN GARBAGE CAN!
Immediately my body went cold, and I felt a wave of shame surge over me.
I did my best to act my way through it, pausing and replying to him: sorry about that, will do, have a great day, before hustling us back home as fast as I could.
Upon arriving home, I thought about the ABCDEs.
I knew what the A was, (I got chastised by my neighbor) and I knew what the C was (I felt cold, sweaty and ashamed) yet I seemed to be missing the B.
I realized that my brain had worked SO fast that I nearly thought I didn’t have a thought at all. But the truth is that all feelings begin with thoughts.
As I considered what had happened, I realized that I had actually thought something like God I’m such an asshole I should have known that lots of people don’t like to have dog poop thrown in their garbage cans, what the hell is wrong with me, and it happened so quickly that I barely noticed.
Once I had the ABC part, I was ready to go on to D & E.
For disputation, I told myself that I am actually a really good person. I do kind and helpful things for people nearly every day of my life.
As for the dog poop, well, at least I pick it up! I even bring two bags with me, so I never have to be faced with that dog-walking nightmare of having picked up one pile, only to have the dog deposit another one when are not in a position to clean it up. Furthermore, I tie up the bags very tightly, so there’s almost no chance they’ll come open, even if some heavier garbage is dropped on top of them. And finally, I pick up ALL kinds of garbage in my neighborhood, regularly. Not only in front of my house, but around many of my close neighbors’ houses as well.
Having concluded the ABCD, I was then ready to check my E – energy.
I felt MUCH better.
Now the part of me that clings to a pessimistic side of personalization does want to say: yeah but don’t make excuses, that was still crappy to drop that sh*t in his garbage and that voice will take some time to reason with and get rid of.
For now I simply respond with: yeah well rest assured that I will NOT be doing that again in the future. I am pretty good at learning from mistakes. But neither will I sit around and feel like a jerk for having done it that one time.
Because I have a kid to think about, so it’s more important to work on my optimistic explanatory style!
What do you tell yourself when a negative event happens?
Could using the ABCDE method help you become more optimistic?
Have you tried it?
Connect with me to share your thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you!