Thursday, June 6, 2013

Optimistic Thinking and How to Get It

What do you do when bad things happen to you? More importantly, how do you explain why that bad thing has happened to you? Do you tell yourself that bad thing happened because you have rotten luck? Or that it's all your fault and you never get things right?

Research shows that how you explain why the events occur is one of the most powerful predictors of whether or not you become depressed. This is what separates resilient people who are able to bounce back on their feet when bad events happen to them and people who become paralyzed when adversity strikes.

Great news! According to world famous psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman and decades of scientific research, you can learn to become more optimistic! Here's how:

Firstly, there is a lot more to pessimism than seeing the glass as half-empty and a lot more to optimism than looking on the bright side of life. Optimism and pessimism are not traits they are ways of thinking.

That means you are not born an optimist or a pessimist, you learn to think like an optimist or a pessimist. Psychologists fondly refer to this as your explanatory style (ES); or how you explain the good and bad things that happen to you in your life.

Dr. Martin Seligman shows that people with a pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to describe the bad things that happen in their life as being their fault. If, for example, you ask a depressed child or one with a pessimistic ES, why he failed the test, his reply might be something like, "I'm stupid," "I suck at school," or "My teacher hates me!" A child with an optimistic ES might say he failed the test because, "The test was hard," or "I did not study enough". For the time being, it is irrelevant which explanation for the failed test is true. What's important is that after years of accumulating thoughts that support either ES, people fall into patterns. A model for explanatory style created by Dr. Karen Reivich is:

Me vs. Not Me Always vs. Not Always Everything vs. Not Everything.

People with a pessimistic ES describe negative events as Me, Always and Everything and positive events as Not Me, Not Always and Not Everything. For example, Jack asks Kelly out on a date and she politely declines. Having a pessimistic ES, Jack thinks to himself, "No wonder she doesn't want to go out with me, I'm a loser". He explains the event as being his fault (Me), and not just limited to this situation (Everything), saying "I'm a loser," refers to many areas of his life. Taking it further, he might even think, "I'll never get married" (Always).

If a positive event happens, like getting the job he wants, and someone asks him why that good thing happen, he might say "I got lucky." He certainly wouldn't forecast more luck in his future. The positive thing isn't attributed to his qualifications for the position (Not Me). He is referring to luck in this one particular situation (Not Always) which would be different from someone saying, "I'm a lucky kind of guy" or predict this luck to trickle into his love life (Not Everything).

Someone with an optimistic ES that gets rejected may say something like, "She is just not interested (Not Me). Oh well plenty of fish in the sea." That one negative event does not pervade their whole life (Not Everything) and just because this person rejected them doesn't mean everyone will (Not Always). Positive events, like getting a job are the result of their own actions "I got the job because I'm qualified for the position (Me) and I present myself well to others (Everything).

Test this out in your own life. Think back to the negative events. How did you explain why that thing happened? Where would you code that on explanatory style? And the good events? Are you expecting more positive events in your future? Or you on the look out for all the things that could go wrong?

We create our own reality based on our thoughts. Most of the time we don't pay attention to our thoughts and we accept them as unquestionable truth. So tune in. Challenge your Me, Always, Everything thoughts with the possibility of Not Me, Not Always, Not Everything thoughts when necessary.

Again, this is one of the most powerful techniques for combating depression and increasing your happiness. Put it into action!

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