Life involves stress, even heartache, for all of us. Furthermore, studies of people who are happier than average show that they experience the same number of failures, disappointments and pain as anyone. They are happier not because life treats them differently, but because they use different strategies for dealing with their difficulties, strategies that can be learned and practiced by anyone.
Psychologist Martin Seligman has been able to demonstrate the differences in people who become depressed and those who do not, based on the kinds of attributions people make during difficult experiences. Three critical differences in attribution determine how people experience setbacks, frustrations and failures.
The experimenters found that the happiest, most optimistic and psychologically healthy people were inconsistent in their attributions. When good happens, they see it as permanent (lasting a long time), personal (caused by me) and pervasive (affecting many parts of my life). But when bad happens, they do exactly the opposite. They view bad as temporary, impersonal and local.
They also found that people who are prone to depression are also inconsistent, but in the opposite way. When bad happens they are likely to believe that it is permanent, personally caused and pervasive. And when good happens they believe it is temporary, not caused by me and not going to affect all parts of their lives.
What stunning and enlightening research!
Martin Seligman and other colleagues went on to try another experiment. They identified grade school children at risk for depression. Half participated in a twelve week class on how to think more optimistically. They were taught to think of bad as temporary and not personal and good as permanent and something they caused. The following year, several months following the training, the students who received the “optimism training” experienced depression only half as often as the untreated group.
Optimistic people are less vulnerable to depression and they bounce back more quickly when bad things happen. What is important to understand is that their depression has less to do with their “constitution” and more to do with their expectations. It is how they look at good about bad events in their lives.
Lots of research has shown that bad events happen to happy people just as often as unhappy people. There is no escaping the difficulties of life. The difference is in how people talk to themselves about these events. And, the good news is that, by understanding this research, you can learn to talk in better and more empowering ways, and thereby develop a more optimistic, resilient and happier attitude.