Ground-breaking research by the American psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues has revealed fundamental differences between optimists and pessimists, not just in terms of what they think, but more importantly how they think. He proposes two key dimensions in the way people interpret their world, which distinguish optimism and pessimism: permanent and temporary.
Pessimists explain setbacks in ways that are
- Personal (‘It’s my fault’)
- Pervasive (‘My whole life is ruined’)
- Permanent (‘It’ll always be like this’)
Optimists see negative events as
- Impersonal (‘It’s one of those things’)
- Impermanent (‘It will pass’)
- Situation-specific (‘This is a tough situation but other areas of my life are working really well and I still have a lot going for me’)
For optimists, difficulties are problems to be solved, not an indication of their flaws as a human being. Pessimists, in contrast, ‘own’ their difficulties and see them as all encompassing.
The difference between permanent and temporary dimensions in optimists and pessimists
|Good things happen||Life is always like that.Permanent interpretation||This is a fluke.Temporary interpretation|
|Bad things happen||This is a one-off.Temporary interpretation||I always have bad luck.Permanent interpretation|
When things go well, the optimist takes a permanent view, while the pessimist assumes the situation is temporary and isn’t going to last. Optimists assume that bad circumstances are temporary and are going to pass, while pessimists believe life is always like that.
The next table shows you another aspect of thinking: pervasive and specific. Pessimists see the positive in specific terms, while optimists regard positivity running through all they do. Optimists stay single-minded when things go wrong, making it easier for them to stay upbeat and take good things from the experience. Pessimists believe everything is a mess.
Pervasive and Specific Dimensions of Thinking
|Good things happen||Lots of things are going right for me.Pervasive interpretation||I got away with this one.Specific interpretation|
|Bad things happen||This particular piece of work was unsatisfactory.Specific interpretation||Everything I do goes wrong.Pervasive interpretation|
As you can see, optimists and pessimists think in completely opposite ways. The long-term effect of dismissing success and assuming failure is seriously damaging in pessimists. Optimists, on the other hand, build their confidence and skills by recognising how often they are successful in a whole range of situations. This in part explains why they are more successful than pessimists in the long run.
In your notebook
- Which category do you tend to fall into?
- Think about a time in your life when something went well for you. How did you explain it? To what did you attribute your success?
- Now remember a time when something didn’t go well – an event that left you feeling disappointed, disillusioned, or fed up. How did you explain this? To what did you attribute the difficulty?
The Power to Choose
In every situation we can choose how we respond. Whether we sink into despair or embrace what experience has to offer is a reflection of how we exercise our power of choice. If you adopt the habit of interpreting events through an optimistic lens, your outlook will be more constructive.
All pessimists can learn the skills of optimism and permanently improve the quality of their lives. You can learn to develop this habit in much the same way you might develop any other good habit such as eating healthily or taking regular exercise.
If you are not used to it, it may feel strange to begin with, but the more you do it, the easier it will get – and the results will be well worth your while.
Even optimists can benefit from learning how to change. Almost all optimists have periods of at least mild pessimism, and the techniques that benefit pessimists can be used by optimists when they are down.
Optimism is a habit rather than a personality type, and, like all habits, it is something you can learn.
Benefits of an Optimistic Perspective
• Feeling more inspired by your life
• Making the most of your gifts and talents
• Being more appreciative of your relationships
• Honouring your priorities and values
• Turning challenges & setbacks to your advantage
• Solving problems more easily
• Ability to take advantage of new opportunities