Optimism: 5 steps to go from being a pessimist to an optimist
It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress. — Jacob, Lost
According to the dictionary, optimism is – a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.
And, pessimism is – the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.
Read the meanings again. It is our habitual tendency to expect good or bad things to happen. If it is a matter of perception, then, could it be that somehow we had learned to think that way? And, could there also be a way to unlearn that belief and adopt another one?
Maybe we are genetically disposed to believe and feel a certain way. Maybe it is our upbringing and our parents’ attitudes at fault. We can have a philosophical and psychological discussion on this for hours, but the question is, regardless how we got the tendency to look at the world a certain way, can we alter it? There seems to be a pretty good motive for one to want to become optimistic. Optimists are higher achievers and in general, happier than the other lot. They have better overall health. People like to be around them. On the other hand, pessimists have a limited stock of hope and faith. They easily fall prey to depression and suffering.
Life throws the same set of blows and setbacks on everyone. The optimist bounces back from defeat, picks up and starts again, whereas a pessimist gives up and falls into depression. Psychologists believe that pessimism is something that people have learned along the way. The manner in which people explain events to themselves reveals on which end of the spectrum they are. For example, in response to a negative event, a pessimist would tell himself or herself “This is all my fault, ” whereas an optimist would say, “It happens – no big deal. There are good days; there are bad days. Today was just a bad day for me.” In response to a compliment on intelligence, an optimist would think, “Of course, I am smart,” and a pessimist would think, “He is just buttering me up. He probably needs something from me.” The psychologists studying this subject believe that pessimists have learned to respond in their peculiar ways. Actually, both optimists and pessimists have learned to respond in a certain way – but, in case of optimists, their thinking pattern works to their advantage, whereas for pessimists, it’s a bad bad news.
Whenever something happens to us – good or bad – we engage in a session of self-talk in our heads, and explain to ourselves how and why we think and feel that way. These thoughts form the basis of our predominant emotions. Depending of the magnitude of the event, the self-talk sessions could last from minutes to months. The never-ending self-talk is what we call “rumination”. A ruminator can be an optimist or a pessimist, and, a pessimist ruminator often slides swiftly into depression. Pessimists cannot change their self-explanatory style overnight, of course, but psychologists Martin Seligman, and Alex Leckerman believe that with specific, deliberate actions, pessimists can learn to be optimists.
The way in which we explain events to ourselves is called “explanatory style,” a psychological characteristic that tells how we habitually explain to ourselves why events happen. Psychologists have identified three primary explanatory styles:
1. Permanent (Stable or Unstable)
When a negative event occurs, pessimists think it is permanent, whereas optimists think it is temporary.
Pessimist: “I am such a lousy person. I always mess up my diet plan.” – My failure at following the diet plan means my life is a failure.
Optimist: “I messed up my diet today. It’s not a big deal; I will be back on track tomorrow.” – I failed at my diet plan just today, but, overall I am doing just fine.
However, when a positive event occurs, pessimists think it is temporary, whereas optimists think it is permanent.
Pessimist: “I got an A in physics because the paper was easy and it was a lucky day for me.” – It was just a fluke.
Optimist: “I got an A in physics; I am great at it.” – It’s no surprise that I got an A an physics.
2. Pervasive (Specific or Universal)
Optimists believe that their weakness or failure is limited to one area, whereas pessimists think weakness or failure in one area means they are no good at anything.
Pessimist: “He doesn’t like me. I am no good. No one likes me.” – No one in the world likes me. It’s a universal fact.
Optimist: “He doesn’t like me. Who cares? I can find better friends anyway.” – It’s just that I don’t get along with him. There are many others who get along just fine with me.
On the other end, Optimists believe their strength is pervasive (universal), whereas pessimists think their strength is limited to just one area.
Pessimist: “I got an A in physics. I just happen to be good at physics.” – The success is limited to only this subject.
Optimist: “I am smart. No wonder I get A’s” – Successful in everything.
3. Personalization (Internal or External)
Pessimists blame themselves for bad events in their lives, whereas, optimists blame external factors for bad events. This directly relates to the low self-esteem of pessimists.
Pessimist: “I got a C in physics. I am just stupid.” – It is my fault.
Optimist: “I got a C in physics. The paper was difficult and I didn’t have enough time to prepare for it. I will be careful next time.” – It’s not my fault. It happens. I will take care of it next time.
On the other hand, when good events happen, pessimists give credit to the external factors, whereas optimists believe they are the cause for the good event.
Pessimist: “I got an A in physics because the paper was easy.” – I just got lucky. There is nothing special about me.
Optimist – “I am very smart. No wonder I got an A in physics.” – I am the type of person who gets A’s, physics or any subject.
Pay attention to your self-talk from now on and notice if you happen to be a stereotypical pessimist or optimist. You might have a blend of explanatory styles, for example, you are optimist at your profession, but, pessimist when it comes to romantic relationships.
From pessimism to optimism
Now, the interesting part – how to move from pessimism to optimism?
The ABC technique was created by psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis, which was later adapted by Dr. Martin Selgiman who expanded it to ABCDE. It is an important element of Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
Adversity (or Activating event) is something that happens to you. Belief is how you explain the event to yourself. Consequences are the emotions and actions that result from the belief. Disputation is to dispute your negative beliefs. Successful disputation leads to Energization, which leads to a celebration of the newly formed positive feelings.
The key juncture in your journey from pessimism to optimism is D. If you can dispute your disturbing beliefs, you can change the consequences. A helpful method is to keep a diary for several days and record ABCDEs in your daily life.
Let’s go over the process with a simple example:
Step 1: Record the adversity
Adversity – My father didn’t call to wish me on my birthday.
Step 2: Analyze your beliefs and record them.
Belief – He thinks I am no good for him. He would have called me if he cared about me. He doesn’t love me.
Step 3: Examine the consequences and record them.
Consequences – I am upset at him and myself. My birthday is now ruined.
Step 4: Dispute the beliefs and record it.
Disputation – Could it be that he was busy? Could it be that he is sick, or dealing with a big issue that he forgot to call? Could it be that his phone is not working?
Step 5: Observe how you feel and record it.
Energization – I feel better about myself now. I can continue with my birthday festivities and will call him later to check on him. I am sure he loves me. He has always called me on my birthdays.
It’s a simple and extreme example, but explains the theory behind the process. With time and practice, you will essentially re-wire your brain to respond to adversity in an optimistic way.
Here is Seligman’s TED talk