Can the way you think influence your life chances? Is it possible to think yourself away from failure and toward success? The field of Positive Psychology says —YES!
So, are you more of a glass-half-full person or a glass-half-empty type? When something goes wrong, are you likely to minimize its importance, brush it off as a one-time thing and quickly move on? Or are you more likely to see it as a serious setback — evidence of a deck stacked against you, or worse, of your own permanent shortcomings — and then fester about it for a long time?
Be honest, now. There could be a lot riding on your answer: everything from your physical immunity, health, longevity, and vulnerability to depression, to your chances of professional and social success. Sadly, pessimistic thinkers face an increased likelihood of troubles in all those areas, and more.
Don’t believe it? (Many pessimists are naturally skeptical.) Well, there’s about 30 years of solid research to prove you wrong. So says Martin Seligman, Ph.D., research psychologist, former president of the American Psychological Association, and author of two bestselling books: Learned Optimism (Simon and Schuster, 1991) and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (Simon and Schuster, 2002). Both books are now available in paperback and continue to rank high on Amazon’s popularity lists.
Seligman is one of the founders and foremost proponents of the Positive Psychology movement, a branch of social science that rejects the traditional “disease model” of psychology, which it sees as focusing primarily on disorders, deficits, addictions, depressions and manias. Positive Psychology, by contrast, concerns itself with discovering the attributes and characteristics that produce states of optimal experience, happiness, hope and personal satisfaction. Ultimately, it seeks to cultivate the traits and virtues that help individuals enjoy lives of meaning and purpose.
Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness is the product of more than three decades of research. It looks at how enduring happiness (vs. momentary pleasure) is created, and how it can be successfully cultivated by pessimists, optimists and everyone in between. It aims to teach people how to transform their self-sabotaging thought patterns and beliefs while still selectively employing their critical-thinking abilities to advantage. Seligman’s approach also encourages individuals to transfer energy away from their fears and deficits by instead identifying and amplifying their strongest and most valuable inherent traits — what Seligman refers to as “signature strengths.”
The Authentic Happiness Web site (www.authentichappiness.org) offers several free, automatically scored questionnaires, including one that helps you rank your own tendencies toward optimism or pessimism, and another that assists you in identifying your own top-five signature strengths.
None of Seligman’s tools or methods are presented as panaceas, but if you are interested in augmenting your personal success and happiness, or discovering how shifting mental gears can improve your health, you may find many of these methods useful — or at the very least, highly thought provoking. Even if you aren’t usually “into that stuff.”
Getting Past “No”
A self-confessed died-in-the-wool pessimist himself, Seligman spent the majority of his early professional career studying “learned helplessness” — a phenomenon wherein animals and people exposed to uncontrollable negative stimuli eventually give up attempting to avoid or escape it. Seligman conducted a variety of experiments with both animal and human subjects and proved conclusively that most test subjects, if deprived of the ability to control shocks, noise or other unpleasant stimuli, would eventually quit trying. Moreover, once they had adopted an attitude of helplessness, they would fail to take action even when the power to control their situation was returned to them.
While the majority of animals and people subjected to these negative-stimuli tests would initially try to change their situation (for example, by pressing a button or lever, or by trying to get away from the source of the discomfort), Seligman noted that about one out of 10 test subjects would give into helplessness almost from the beginning. He also discovered, with great interest, that three out of 10 subjects would never give up trying. Presented with the opportunity to change their circumstances, they would seize upon it almost immediately, regardless of how long they’d been without control in the past. It appeared clear to Seligman from these experiments that some personalities were naturally more inclined to give into helplessness than others, and to adopt that helplessness more permanently.
This observation — and the subsequent observation that even the most helpless subjects could regain instinct and knowledge of how to avoid discomfort if re-empowered and re-educated to do so — inspired Seligman to study the subject of human pessimism and optimism, an area he ended up researching intensely for more than two decades.
In the course of his research, Seligman learned an enormous amount about what makes both types of people tick — their different thought processes, beliefs, assumptions and attitudes. He also discovered a great deal about the relative success of their very different approaches to life.
Among other things, Seligman found that pessimistic, negative-minded people tend to be less healthy, less proactive about their health, more apt to die young, and to be less socially and professionally successful than optimistic, positive-minded types. They have more trouble achieving lasting happiness.
Pessimists, as he writes in Authentic Happiness, “are eight times more likely to become depressed when bad events happen; they do worse in school, sports, and most jobs than their talents augur; they have worse physical health and shorter lives; they have rockier interpersonal relations, and they lose American Presidential elections to their more optimistic opponents.”
Optimists, meanwhile, tend toward happiness naturally. They experience more positive emotion, and as a result of emotion’s neurobiological effects upon the brain and body, Seligman asserts, they also tend to have lower blood pressure and higher levels of immunity. They take better health precautions, and seek out more health information, and endure pain better. But wait, there’s more: Research (cited and explained in detail throughout Seligman’s book) indicates that happiness encourages productivity and is also a predictor of better job reviews and higher income.
Two World Views
When he went looking for the underlying reasons for all these differences, Seligman discovered it mostly came down to cognitive patterns — differences in the way these two groups of people think and interpret their reality.
Optimists, according to Seligman, tend to see positive events as evidence of permanent and enduring positive reality, or a reflection of their own accomplishment and value. They see negative events as temporary, unlucky or situation-specific setbacks that have little or nothing to do with them.
With pessimists, it’s just the opposite: They see negative events as evidence of permanent and enduring negative truths, or as a reflection of their own incompetence or imperfection. Meanwhile, they see positive events as temporary, haphazard or situation-specific strokes of good fortune that have little or nothing to do with them.
These two different world views lead to radically different ways of interpreting and explaining reality — what Seligman refers to as an individual’s “explanatory style.”
Our individual explanatory style, Seligman asserts, is an important predictor of how well we’ll do in a variety of personal and professional situations. The reason? Well, for one thing, a pessimistic explanatory style serves to exacerbate one’s tendency toward “learned helplessness” — the state in which you believe that nothing you can choose to do will affect what happens to you. Pessimism also leads people to be critical and judgmental, to make negative, often erroneous assumptions and to “close decisions” prematurely. In addition, it often causes them to speak and act in a variety of unlikable ways that tends to distance them from other people.
Patterns like these have profound potential to undermine people’s life chances, obviously, and also their level of happiness. But if you happen to be a pessimist, and have been one all your life, is there really anything you can do about it? Can consciously changing your way of thinking actually help make you happier?
The answer is yes — and no. It turns out that your chances of happiness are dictated partly by genetics, partly by circumstances, and partly by factors under your control.
“Roughly 50 percent of almost every personality trait turns out to be attributable to genetic inheritance,” explains Seligman. “But high heritability does not determine how unchangeable a trait is. Some highly heritable traits (like sexual orientation and body weight) don’t change much at all, while other highly heritable traits (like pessimism and fearfulness) are very changeable.”
Keep to the Sunny Side
According to Seligman, all of us are born with a “set range” of happiness — a “’steersman’ who urges us toward a specific level of happiness or sadness.” But depending on our circumstances and personal choices, we can wind up operating either in the upper or lower span of that range. Some circumstances we can’t change, he notes, but given the high price of pessimism, it is advisable for us to make every possible effort to bolster the components of happiness we can, even if that means fighting some of our own natural tendencies.
According to Seligman’s research findings, a positive frame of mind tends to make a person not only more likable, but also more creative, hopeful, resilient and able to see a wider range of possibilities. Negative frames of mind, by contrast, tend to make a person more critical (which can be an asset in certain situations (see the “Choose Your Mood” sidebar, below), but also makes them quicker to give up, more apt to reach “premature closure” in decisions, and far more vulnerable to depression.
Seligman notes that when judiciously employed, “mild pessimism has its uses.” But, he says, “25 years of study has convinced me that if we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that misfortune is our fault, is enduring, and will undermine everything we do, more of it will befall us than if we believe otherwise. I am also convinced that if we are in the grip of this view, we will get depressed easily, we will accomplish less than our potential, and we will even get physically sick more often. Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling.”
Pessimist or Optimist?
Given the multitude of downsides to pessimism, you’d think that as a personality trait it would be hard to miss. But in reality, many pessimists aren’t aware of their own pessimism. They may be leading reasonably happy, productive, satisfactory lives, and may even see themselves as the recipients of a certain amount of good fortune.
Pessimism and optimism are reflections not of the things that happen in your life — the things that do or do not befall you — but rather of how you explain or interpret the events that occur. Pessimists and optimists have diametrically opposed ways of behaving, of remembering, of “casting” reality. Specifically, in Seligman’s terms, they have different explanatory styles.
According to Seligman, there are two crucial dimensions to a person’s explanatory style: Permanence and pervasiveness. These two things represent the “whens and wheres” of life: Permanence has to do with time, and pervasiveness has to do with space.
Pessimistic people tend to think of the causes of bad things as both permanent (always) and pervasive (everywhere), while they see the causes of good things as specific (exceptional/unusual) and temporary (this won’t last).
Optimists, conversely, see good things as pervasive and permanent, bad things as specific and temporary. The outcome is that optimistic people have far greater reason to go on hoping and trying. This creates more opportunities for them to succeed and more resistance against feelings of helplessness.
Seligman points out that people who give up easily often do so because they are convinced that the causes of whatever bad events occur are permanent — meaning that such bad events will occur persistently, and that the individual will always be more or less at their mercy. So why bother? Pessimistic thinkers also “catastrophize” events, seeing isolated bad news or failures as evidence of much larger problems.
Maybe you’ve taken one or more of the optimism and happiness quizzes at www.authentichappiness.org, or perhaps you’ve gleaned enough information from the charts on the previous page to identify whether you are more inclined toward pessimistic or optimistic thinking. Either way, by now you may be interested in finding ways of nudging your thinking a little more toward the optimistic side.
So, how do you increase optimism? Essentially, you have to challenge your own thoughts and the core beliefs that underlie them. Often, says Seligman, these beliefs have to do with notions of self-worth or one’s basic chances for success. “Just because a person fears that he is unemployable, unlovable, or inadequate, doesn’t mean it’s true,” Seligman notes. “It’s essential to stand back and distance yourself from your pessimistic explanations, at least long enough to verify their accuracy.”
In Authentic Happiness, Seligman advances a well-documented method for this purpose. The “ABCDE” method (spelled out below) can work well for nonpessimists too — for anyone, really, who is caught in a black moment of self-loathing, fear or doubt. The idea, explains Seligman, is that by effectively disputing the beliefs that follow an adverse event, you can morph your automatic reaction away from dejection and hopelessness and toward one of receptiveness and motivation. In other words, you can move from an attitude that predisposes you to failure and suffering, to one that opens up possibilities for movement and success.
But just how does one go about arguing with oneself? “Use the same techniques you would use against an external opponent,” Seligman suggests. “The key to disputing your own pessimistic thoughts is to first recognize them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by an external persona, a rival whose mission in life was to make you miserable.”
Learning to argue yourself out of pessimistic trains of thought and feeling is, as Seligman points out, a complex skill — one that must be consciously developed. First, of course, you have to be able to stop your normal pessimistic chain reaction long enough to contemplate the belief or beliefs that are operating in a given situation. Then you have to accurately identify them and their consequences in the situation. (Most often, the consequences of a negative belief will be the emergence of destructive or disempowering attitudes such as helplessness, resignation, rejection, giving up, entrenchment in certain positions or decisions — attitudes that tend to limit your creativity, your view of options and your chances of success.) After you’ve identified the belief and noted that it isn’t a constructive one, you then begin disputing it, showing evidence for why the belief is unlikely to be true.
If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is! Seligman hastens to point out that there is a vast difference between this structured, reality-based approach and so-called “positive thinking,” which simply calls for people to “try and believe” upbeat statements or affirmations, such as “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” While such affirmations may help some people, Seligman notes, they do little or nothing to dismantle negative explanatory styles, and they tend to be less useful for people who are skeptical thinkers by nature (i.e., pessimists).
The real value of Seligman’s disputation techniques is that they actually put skeptical thinking and fault-finding skills to good use — by focusing them on locating the inaccuracies and mistakes in one’s own thinking process. Instead of rejecting pessimism wholesale, these methods essentially hone its skills “for good, not evil.” They reprogram the pessimistic mind to find the flaws in its own self-destructive arguments. “Learned optimism,” writes Seligman, “is all about accuracy.”
For those who are accustomed to seeing the world through half-empty glasses, such a dramatic shift in perspective may not be all that appealing at first. After all, you’ve experienced the world your way for a long time. Then again, once you’ve read the evidence accumulated in Seligman’s books and considered the tangible advantages of more positive modes of thought, you may just change your mind.
There’s no reason to resign your pessimistic position entirely, of course. You may never have a burning desire to “keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side.” On the other hand, when you stop to think about it, tooling around there on a tourist visa now and then couldn’t hurt.