We often think of certain attributes such as optimism and pessimism as givens, permanent and ingrained into our personalities, something that we have little control over or can do nothing about. That’s not a very helpful point of view. It renders us helpless, powerless, victims of either our genetics or early child upbringing.
However, scientists are learning today that we are much more fluid in personality, biology, and even intelligence than we have long believed. Epigenetics asserts that organisms can change by modifying how genes express themselves rather than by altering the genetic code itself. In part, this means that we can modify many aspects of our personalities by changing the way we see and think about what is going on in our lives. Even people who consider themselves to be pessimists can become optimistic and resilient by modifying their point of view.
There are lots of strategies for becoming more optimistic. Most encourage you to become aware of your thoughts and change your thinking when you are going through a difficult time. I happen to like a particular technique taught by Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. I actually wrote another blog about this a number of years back but think it is worth mentioning again.
Attributions During Hard and Good Times
Seligman claims that we make three attributions when something good or bad happens in our lives. One is duration—do we see it as permanent or temporary? A second is cause—do we see it as personal or impersonal? A third is proportion—do we see it as pervasive or local?
Here’s how optimists think. They see negative events as temporary, impersonal and local. For example, someone gets low marks and criticism for a verbal report in front of his work group. An optimist would see this as temporary (the next report will go much better), impersonal (a function of extraneous factors rather than one’s own ability) and local (related to this report and not one’s job in general).
A pessimist does the opposite. He interprets the low mark and criticism as permanent (“I never do well in these situations”), personal (“I’m not good in front of a group”) and pervasive (“another indication that things are not going well at work”).
It is fascinating to know that optimists and pessimists do the opposite with positive events. An optimist sees positive events as permanent, personal and pervasive. Suppose she gives a report and gets high marks and lots of praise. She believes she always does well on reports (permanent), it is due to her good research and speaking abilities (personal), and she views it as pervasive or true across many aspects of her life.
Again, a pessimist does the opposite. The high marks were temporary (“I got lucky”), impersonal (“I found a really relevant research report”) and local (“This meeting and topic came together nicely”).
Here’s the kicker. Optimists are not “better” or naturally more talented than pessimists. They simply have better strategies for confronting the ups and downs of life. They view what happens in a way that serves rather than defeats them and thereby not only experience more happiness but become more resilient and better able to deal with future challenges.
So, I want to challenge you to examine yourself and learn this skill, if is not natural to you. Take a moment to write down a negative and positive situation and then identify the optimistic perspective for each of these situations. I know that it is tempting to shortcut this process and quickly think it out in your mind but it is far more powerful to actually go through the exercise in writing. Your automatic responses are deeply ingrained and writing out a new response allows you to think through, much more deliberately, how you want to respond.
Optimistic view of a Negative Event/Situation
Keep this up and you’re training yourself to experience your life from abundance not scarcity. You’ll become happier and more resilient.