Optimism refers to our tendency to see the potential for positive outcomes in our experiences - it is that tendency to "see the glass half full versus half empty." What we think is very powerful - "Whether you think you can, or think you can't--you're right" (Henry Ford). One of the keys to developing an optimistic outlook is adjust our explanatory style and develop a growth mindset.
Research shows that it's not what happens that determines your mood but how you explain what happens that counts. This effects how we view success and failure.
The optimist encounters a math problem that she can't figure out, she's likely to say, "Either the book is unclear or this problem is hard or maybe I'm having an off day." The optimist keeps the rationale for failure outside herself ("the book"), specific ("this problem"), and temporary ("an off day"). A pessimist might think "I'm stupid! I'm never going to get math! How am I ever going to succeed in school." The pessimist make the explanation for failure internal ("I'm stupid"), global ("How am I ever going to succeed in school"), and permanent ("I'm never going to get math!").
When success occurs optimists say, "Of course I did well on my test: I studied and I'm smart." The optimist views success as being caused by internal factors while noting that specific behaviors supported their success. The pessimist might view success by saying "Boy, was I lucky today. I doubt that I'll do this good next time." The pessimist does not internalize the reason for their success. It is viewed as being external ("luck") and temporary ("I doubt that I'll do this good next time). To better understand optimistic and pessimistic thinking and its impact on resiliency, we need to look at the work of Martin Seligman.
Martin Seligman, a social psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues developed the term "explanatory style" to refer those thinking habits, or preferred ways of looking at the world, that can help or hinder our ability to respond to the world in a resilient manner. Our explanatory style helps us to theorize why things happen and the impact that they will have on us. We may find that our explanatory style is the same in all environments or situations or may vary by situation and role. There are three key components to explanatory style: Personalization, Permanence, and Pervasiveness.
- Personalization asks the question "Who caused the problem?" (Internal/Me or External/not me).
- Permanence asks the question "How long will this problem last?" (Long Lasting or Temporary)
- Pervasiveness asks the question "How much of my life does this problem affect?" (Global or Specific)
Here are some explanatory styles and their associated feelings:
Explanatory Styles Associated with Depression and/or Anxiety
When we have an explanatory style that leans toward ME, LONG LASTING and GLOBAL.. we tend to view the world and our problems in a pessimistic manner. Problems can become overwhelming and we may struggle with feelings of depression and/or anxiety.
Here's an example: Tim has been working on working on being more social at school. He and his roommate have been hanging out with a group of people and he if thinking that he is beginning to develop some new friendships. Tim learns of a party that his roommate was invited to that he wasn't. Tim's explanatory style for this event was "I'm such a loser, I never get invited to anything. No one likes me and things will never change." This is an example of the INTERNAL-LONG LASTING-GLOBAL explanatory style. INTERNAL - "I'm such a loser"; LONG LASTING - "things will never change"; GLOBAL - "I never get invited to anything."
Explanatory Styles Associated with Feelings of Anger and Resentment
Another problematic explanatory style is EXTERNAL, LONG LASTING, and GLOBAL. People with this style tend to view the world with anger and resentment. If we take the example above, if Tim were to think "He always gets invited to things. This is never going to change. I don't know what's wrong with those jerks." Tim's explanatory style of EXTERNAL - "I don't know what's wrong with those jerks"; LONG LASTING - "This is never going to change"; and GLOBAL - "He always gets invited to things" could lead him to feel anger and resentment toward his roommate and their friends.
Explanatory Styles Associated with Feelings of Optimism
The explanatory style that leads people to looking at the world in a more optimistic way is the EXTERNAL, TEMPORARY, and SPECIFIC interpretation of events. With this explanatory style Tim might think "That's a bummer. I guess that they have known my roommate longer than me. Hopefully as I become better friends with them, they will think to invite me to the next party." Tim's interpretation of the event as EXTERNAL - "I guess that they have known my roommate longer than me"; TEMPORARY - "Hopefully... they will think to invite me to the next party"; and SPECIFIC - "Hopefully as I become better friends with them...". This explanatory style provides Tim with a way to experience both disappointment (that he wasn't invited) and hope (things will change in the future). Tim is more likely to continue to work on the change that he made to his behavior and achieve his goal of becoming more social.
The Growth Mindset refers to an individuals tendency to view their intelligence and ability as qualities that can be developed and enhanced over time. This compares to a Fixed Mindset in which individuals view these factors as fixed traits that you either have or do not have. The benefits of having a growth mindset include:
- Freedom from anxiety around skills and intelligence. If a person believes that they have the ability to grow and develop their skills and intelligence, then they do not have to waste time worrying about how smart or skilled they are as compared to others. Challenges become exciting because they help you to learn.
- Seeing the value of effort. Individuals who see the value in effort are intrinsically motivated to continue in an activity as they see it as an enhancement to their growth as an individual.
- Mistakes and setbacks are ok. Individuals with a growth mindset understand that mistakes and setbacks are inevitable and are a necessary part of the learning and growth process.