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Learned Optimism and Explanatory Styles

LO“Learned Optimism” is a book by Martin Seligman that I read about 15 years ago and have since counted among my favorites. Dr. Seligman, who has a doctorate in psychology, points out that optimists generally fare better in life than pessimists if only because optimists try harder, longer, and more often than pessimists.

Why? Simply because optimists are convinced they will succeed. And because optimists try harder, longer, and more often, they generally succeed more often. So, short of rampant delusions and foolhardy stupidity (no, optimism is not forgetting your seat belt or failing to wear a life vest prior to going deep-sea fishing) you are generally better off being an optimist.

But, you exclaim, what if I wasn’t “born” an optimist? What is a person who is not naturally an optimist to do? Simple! Read and put into practice “Learned Optimism” (or read the addendum below, but the book gives a more complete explanation of the technique).

The key to optimism or pessimism lies in our “explanatory styles.” Our explanatory style, or the way we explain life events to ourselves, says a lot about us.

Explanatory styles may be broken down into three categories:

1. Permanence: permanent or temporary

2. Pervasiveness: specific or universal

3. Personalization: internalization or externalization

Optimists believe that
- Good events are permanent, universal, and internal
- Bad events are temporary, specific, and external

When good things happens to optimists, they believe the good will hang around for awhile, that the good is permanent, global, and somehow linked to their efforts. When bad things happen to optimists, they are hopeful that the bad is temporary, specific to the event, not their fault, and it is bad things that are fleeting and transitory.

Pessimists tend to believe that
- Bad events are permanent, universal, and internal
- Good events are temporary, specific, and external

When good things happen to pessimists, they believe the good to be an accident and likely to soon disappear. It is fleeting, transitory, and certainly limited in scope. When bad things happen to pessimists, they believe the bad to be permanent, global, and the result of some internal failing.

“People who make ‘universal explanations’ for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People who make ‘specific explanations’ may become helpless in that one area, but not in any others. Optimists believe that bad events have specific causes and are compartmentalized, and that good events enhance everything they do. Pessimists believe that bad events have universal causes, and good events have specific factors. People who believe that good events have permanent causes try even harder after they succeed. People who believe that good events have transient causes give up even when they succeed, believing success to be a fluke.”

Closing Quotes:

“Leaders need to be optimists. Their vision is beyond the present.” — Rudy Giuliani

“Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope; finding permanent and universal causes is the practice of despair.” — Martin Seligman

“If I regarded my life from the point of view of the pessimist, I should be undone. I should seek in vain for the light that does not visit my eyes and the music that does not ring in my ears. I should beg night and day and never be satisfied. I should sit apart in awful solitude, a prey to fear and despair. But since I consider it a duty to myself and to others to be happy, I escape a misery worse than any physical deprivation.” — Helen Keller

—————–

How to Work on Your Belief (Explanation) About an Adverse Event
(from “Learned Optimism,” by Martin Seligman)

The ABCDE Model
A = Adversity
B = Belief
C = Consequences
D = Disputation
E = Energization

Adversity: The objective description of what happened (not your interpretation of it).

Belief: Your beliefs are how you interpret the adversity.
• Be sure to separate thoughts from feelings (feelings are consequences)
- You can check the accuracy of thoughts; you can’t check the accuracy of feelings; if you feel sad, you are sad

Consequences: Your feelings, and what you did.
• Often you will feel more than one thing
- Write down as many as you are aware of
- What did you do then?

There are two ways to deal with pessimistic beliefs–distraction and disputation.
• Distraction
- There are several simple but effective thought-stopping techniques
- Ringing a loud bell
- Carry a 3×5 card with the word STOP on it
- Wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it hard
• To keep your thoughts from returning to a negative belief, direct your attention elsewhere
- Concentrate on a small object with all your focus
• When adversity strikes, schedule some time–later–for thinking things over
• Write the troublesome thoughts down the moment they occur

• Disputation: A deeper, more lasting remedy for disturbing beliefs is to dispute them; go on the attack.
- It’s easy to distance oneself from the accusations of others, but when we launch the attack ourselves, we assume it must be true. Wrong!

The 4 Disputation Techniques
• Evidence
- Show that the negative belief is factually incorrect. Ask, “What is the evidence for this belief?”
- Unlike positive thinking, which consists of trying to believe upbeat statements in the absence of evidence, learned optimism is about accuracy
- Repeating positive statements doesn’t raise mood or achievement; it’s how you cope with negative statements that has effect (“the power of non-negative thinking”)
- Most people catastrophize–they select the potential cause with the most dire implications–you can easily dispute this by pointing to the distortions

• Alternatives
- Most events have many causes. Pessimists latch on to the worst possible cause.
- To generate alternative explanations, focus on changeable, specific, non-personal causes

• Implications
- **Sometimes, the negative belief is correct. If that’s the case, you can still de-catastrophize.
- “Even if my belief is correct, what are it’s real implications?”
- You can then repeat the search for evidence

• Usefulness
- Sometimes, the consequences of holding a belief matter more than the truth of that belief
- For example, your belief that life isn’t fair is true, but doesn’t do much for you
- If a belief isn’t useful, try distraction, or look to the future. “Is the situation changeable? How can I go about changing it?”

Energization: the process of bringing together and applying the model

Practice the ABCDE technique with a friend or spouse providing the negative criticism to challenge you.

Download as PDF

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