Think about the last time something bad happened in your life. Maybe your boss was unhappy with a project you did at work. Or you forgot a friend’s birthday. Or you asked someone out on a date and they turned you down.
How did you respond? Did you think thoughts like, “My boss will never trust me again,” “I’m a terrible friend,” or “I’m totally unlikeable.”
THESE ARE ALL EXAMPLES OF WHAT’S CALLED A PESSIMISTIC EXPLANATORY STYLE, AND THEY’RE WHAT MIGHT BE MAKING YOU FEEL LIKE A NEGATIVE NANCY.
“My boss will never trust me again” is an example of permanence—assuming a single negative event will last forever. Optimists think of bad events as temporary. “My boss didn’t love my ideas this time, but he’ll dig what I’m cooking up next.”
“I’m a terrible friend” is an example of pervasiveness—assuming that one failing is indicative of a larger failing. Optimists isolate problem areas. “I may have forgotten her birthday, but I did help her move last month.”
“I’m unlikeable” is an example of personalization—assuming you’re the cause of the problem. Optimists blame causes outside of themselves. “He said he had a lot going on; he’s probably too busy to date.”
So, Debbie Downer, if you recognize yourself in the pessimistic explanatory styles above, what can you do to level up in optimism?
Practice the optimistic explanatory style whenever you can. Write “temporary, isolated, and external” on notecards and put them on your desk at work, by your bed, and in your wallet.
If you catch yourself explaining events with pessimism, take a moment to dream up a more charitable explanation and act as if you believe it. Eventually, you will.
You’ll go from Penny Pessimism to Opal Optimism in no time.
Pro-tip: Optimists also have different ways of explaining positive events. Can you guess how they do it? Yup. Optimists tend to think of the good things in their life as permanent, pervasive, and personalized.
For more on this topic, read Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism.
p.s. Please do not confuse this with an argument about the power of positive thinking and “manifesting” good things into your life. Nor should optimistic explanatory styles be used to absolve yourself of responsibility when you hurt others. The rules you learned in kindergarten still apply: Work hard. Be nice.