Glass half empty or glass half full? What if we told you it’s your choice?
That’s the current scientific thinking around optimism, a skill set that researchers believe is crucial to leading happier and healthier lives.
Common thinking has most believing that people are naturally born pessimists or optimists. But there’s hope for pessimists, according to scientists who have examined explanatory style — how you explain the events in your life — and say that changing your explanations might actually change your outlook, and your life.
Pessimists tend to believe that negative events are their fault. Optimists believe it’s a matter of circumstance.
That explanatory style manifests in what are called three “dimensions.” It’s pretty jargon-y, but one easy way to remember it is: “me, always, and everything.” Someone with a pessimistic explanatory style trying to make sense of some bad news might say, “I failed. I always fail. And I fail at everything.” Those with an optimistic style, though, might look at the same bad news and say: “This other thing made me fail. At this. And it won’t last.” Just look at this example quiz to determine your outlook, adapted from Dr. Martin Seligman's book, Learned Optimism, and you can see how the language infers these two mindsets: “I made this meal in a rush” versus “I am a bad cook,” for example.
And those reactions flip if the news is good rather than bad. Once you know this pattern, you start to see it in literally everything everyone says. Psychologists have measured optimistic explanatory styles in post-game press conferences, political speeches, and even song lyrics.
So how exactly do you flip your own internal script to explain away the bad and focus on the good? Some studies have mined suggestions for the eternal pessimist in you.
Ask yourself conscious, guided questions.
In a study, basketball players who trained themselves to switch styles saw their free-throw percentage actually almost begin to improve.
And the trick they used is one you can copy. Consciously ask questions to guide your explanation, whether you hit your shot or miss it: Is it me? Is it always? And is it really everything in my life?
Be aware of the 3 P’s when you tell yourself a story.
When you examine and explain a situation in your life — whether positive or negative — there are usually three common themes: permanence, pervasiveness, and personal. According to The Week, you’ll start notice a running theme in your narratives depending on your outlook.
How to flip your script, according to researchers?
Watch your thinking and flip the script on the three:
1. Change permanent explanations to more fleeting ones.
2. Change pervasive responses to specific ones.
3. Change personal reasoning to not-all-my-fault perspectives.
Ask yourself: "What's the cost of being wrong here?"
It’s not to say that pessimism is always wrong. There are some studies that say that mild pessimism has its benefits too, like for entrepreneurs, for example, who may realistically assess a situation rather than blindly, happily jumping into a risky investment. So when should you be an optimist and when should you be a pessimist? Seligman notes in his book, Learned Optimism, what he calls “flexible optimism”:
The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy. The pilot in the cockpit deciding whether to de-ice the plane one more time, the partygoer deciding whether to drive home after drinking, the frustrated spouse deciding whether to start an affair that, should it come to light, would break up the marriage should not use optimism. Here the costs of failure are, respectively, death, an auto accident, and a divorce. Using techniques that minimize those costs is inappropriate. On the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, use optimism.
Being an optimist takes practice.
There’s no light switch to turn on optimism: Flipping a script, particularly if you’re prone to pessimistic thinking, is a skill set to be learned. And it’s not always easy: In one study designed to research “self-administered optimist thinking,” researchers asked subjects to explain the circumstances of good and bad experiences in the past 30 days. When half of the group were asked to offer “revised” explanations of the events, the first results were actually more negative than their initial responses. However, over the course of the study and with repetition, the group eventually offered more optimistic explanations of events than the control group.
And what most find is that the words you use — even unconsciously — affects your future self. One famous study involves university swimmers of optimistic and pessimistic styles: Researchers fibbed and told both groups that they clocked a slower time than normal. In the following race, optimists swam at normal speeds — after all, it was a fluke, right? But their more pessimistic counterparts recorded a worse time. The lesson they took from the past — that they were slower — bled into their future. The moral of the story? Just because you’ve been a pessimist in the past doesn’t mean you can’t be an optimist in the future. You just have to explain things differently.