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21. More on Optimism

PUBLISHED 5th July , 2016


Today let’s talk a little more about optimism. According to Martin Seligman, there are three crucial dimensions in the way we explain events in our lives: permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation.1 I am going to explore these aspects based on Seligman’s explanations2, and first consider an event in which something goes badly. Let’s say a friend did not return our call.

Permanence:

Many of us make statements which are very permanent, for example when we say to our partner that he never helps with the cooking, or always leaves his dirty socks lying around. Permanent statements made about a negative event are extremely pessimistic; they insinuate that nothing will ever change. For the example of our friend not calling, we might think along these lines: I’m always the one calling him, yet he never calls back. If you do this you are inclined to pessimism. And the sad fact is that offering permanent explanations for bad events will lead you to give up easily.

It is better to try to view an unpleasant event as one specific occurrence in time. For example, we can explain his not calling with: The last few times I called first; it’s just lately that he sometimes doesn’t respond. An explanation like this is more optimistic. It helps to buffer the effects of difficult events because we see them as temporary. A setback makes us all momentarily hopeless. The important thing is that this is overcome as soon as possible, and pessimists have to learn this.

Pervasiveness (which means widely spread in space):

There are those who like to take a small mishap as proof that things are really going to the dogs in our world. When they experience a setback they often face a line of catastrophic thoughts, in the above example: Human beings no longer care for each other; if I called upon friends when in need, nobody would come. Everyone is too busy and selfish these days. This might sound a farfetched response to a friend not returning a call. But people do this; I used to be a specialist at it. In the days when I was very unhappy, I would see a mistake made at work as proof that it would be best if I killed myself. See if you have a tendency to give universal explanations for specific events. If you do, you will find it hard not to become helpless because your pessimistic view of bad events will make you feel powerless.

It is better to always aim to be specific when regarding unpleasant, hard, unfortunate events or hardship. If we are exact about what is happening or has occurred, we might simply say: This friend is a little slack in returning calls; perhaps he is busy at work. We are much more optimistic when we specifically name the person, cause, or circumstances involved in the event. Try to remember that it is only that one thing has gone wrong; that does not mean it’s the end of everything.

Personalisation:

This is about the difference of ascribing internal or external causes for what has happened, i.e. blaming ourselves or others and circumstances. Some of us are quick to think that everything is our fault when something goes badly. We might reason: My friend is not calling back because I have upset him. Or maybe I am too needy; it’s clear he has cooler friends than me. Those who think that everything is their fault when faced with a bad event will often suffer from low self-esteem. They are quick to feel worthless, guilty or undeserving, and take difficulties as proof that they can’t do anything right.

Some individuals, of course, are happy to blame everything and everyone else but themselves: Other people did it; they are stupid; they failed me. According to Seligman, personalisation is the least important of the three dimensions of explanatory style. That is just as well, because it turns out that for our self-esteem, it is better if we blame others or circumstances. But we all know that that’s not necessarily the right approach to becoming our best possible selves.

Self-esteem has a lot to do with psychological wellbeing, and we’ll get to this. It won’t do, however, to say to anyone: don’t have low self-esteem. In my estimation there is a reason why people don’t feel good about themselves. For example, they might not have had unconditional encouragement or love in their formative years. Read: not their fault. At this point I just want to say that it is not helpful to feel responsible for things one is not responsible for. Try not to take events personally unless they are clearly so. People have good days and bad days; sometimes you catch them on a bad day. It does not necessarily mean they had it in for you. If in doubt, let the fault be external; you are not God and don’t have to answer for every last thing.

I once worked briefly in a five star restaurant, and always took pride in looking after my guests with upmost thoughtfulness. One day the drinks waiter mixed up one of my tables’ tally with another, much larger one. When the woman from my table tried to pay the bill, she realised this. The till stood in the middle of the dining room, and from this vantage point she turned around until she spotted me, then pointed her finger across the room and shouted: “She did it on purpose!” At least that time I realised that none of it was my fault.

And now we are going to reverse everything you have just read for good events. Seligman writes that “the optimistic style of explaining good events is just the opposite of explaining bad events”.3 When something good happens, the ultimate optimist will do three things: make it permanent, see it as a universal sign, and own it. Say we win an award. The optimistic way of explaining this great event is to say something like: I’m just really clever and always a little lucky as well (permanence). I am charming and know how to tap into what people want to hear (universal). I did it and I deserve it! (personalisation). An optimistic explanation of a good event will focus on ongoing traits and abilities. Optimists don’t shy away from letting one pleasing event pervade across everything they do. And they have no trouble feeling that they deserve all the good that happens to them.

As I leave you to review your habits of explaining events in your life, let me share a quote from Seligman, who is not only a fine scientist but also an entertaining writer:

I once lived with a woman who blamed everything on me. Bad restaurant meals, late flights, even imperfect creases in her dry-cleaned trousers. “Sweetheart,” I said one day, in exasperation after being bawled out because her hair dryer didn’t work, “you are the most external person for bad events I’ve ever met.”

Yes,” she shouted, “and it’s all your fault!”4

© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015

Notes

  1. Martin E. P. Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 44-51.
  2. All theoretical concepts presented from Seligman, Learned Optimism, 43-51.
  3. Seligman, Learned Optimism, 45.
  4. Seligman, Learned Optimism, 49.

 

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