Research says people with a positive outlook live longer. But what if you’re not inherently optimistic? Can you change your outlook on life? All Illustrations by Kanupriya Singh
Have you ever encountered those individuals who maintain a positive attitude even in the face of adversity? You may wonder, “How do they manage to do it?” However, a more pertinent inquiry to pose is, “Can I emulate their approach?”
Research has established that individuals who possess an optimistic outlook tend to lead healthier and longer lives. In fact, a recent study published in the journal PNAS, which involved over 70,000 participants, discovered that those who regarded themselves as highly optimistic had a greater likelihood of living past the age of 85 than those who were less optimistic.
The power of optimism is not just having a sunny disposition, but applying this mindset to make positive change. Optimistic people generally have the perspective that with the right approach and right action, they can solve problems and improve the situation.
In this newsletter
You will discover why optimists tend to be healthier than pessimists.
You’ll find out why talking to yourself in a pessimistic way can lead to depression.
Finally, and most importantly, you’ll discover how Optimism is learned, and that it’s possible to change your outlook on life for the better.
Your life can be profoundly influenced by your explanatory style, often in ways that you may not be aware of. Depending on your explanatory style, it can either decrease or intensify your stress response. It can make you feel secure in situations that are perceived as socially hazardous, or put you at risk in situations that are actually safe. Additionally, it can either motivate you when confronted with obstacles or make you feel vulnerable to them.
Psychologists Gregory McClell Buchanan and Martin EP Seligman, define explanatory style as “our inclination to provide similar explanations for diverse events.” In modern psychology, explanatory style refers to how people interpret the occurrences in their lives. When something transpires, our explanatory style affects how we analyse it, attach significance to it, and evaluate it as either a challenge or a threat in our lives. It encompasses self-talk and self-perception, and it influences stress levels in various ways.
Explanatory style refers to the way in which we explain the negative events of our lives to ourselves: optimistically or pessimistically. Both optimists and pessimists tend to use very distinct explanatory styles.
Pessimists have explanatory styles that are universal, permanent and internal; vice versa for optimists.
Our explanatory style determines how we perceive negative events in our lives, which can be either optimistic or pessimistic.
So, what constitutes our explanatory style?
Primarily, pessimists tend to view problems as lasting, while optimists view them as temporary.
To illustrate, let’s say you lose a crucial client, and your immediate thought is, “I always lose my most significant clients.” By utilising the term “always,” you construct a permanent explanation: you have always lost your most significant clients and will continue to do so. This type of thinking can result in feelings of hopelessness and a lack of motivation to try again.
In contrast, an optimistic explanatory style regards negative events as temporary. In the same scenario, you might think, “I lost this particular important client, but I will succeed with other clients.”
Second, where optimists think of problems as being specific to a certain situation, pessimists tend to generalise.
Suppose a student with a pessimistic explanatory style receives a poor grade that they believe is unjustified. They may start to view grades as inherently unfair, which could result in difficulty studying for future exams.
Alternatively, if they approached the problem with a specific explanatory style, they would concentrate only on the individual event. For example, they might think, “Alright, this one professor is being unfair, but perhaps my other professors will recognize my efforts better.”
Thirdly, optimists generally attribute negative events to external factors, while positive events are attributed to internal factors. In contrast, pessimists tend to think in the opposite direction, attributing negative events to internal factors, and positive events to external factors.
Let’s take an example to understand this better. If your partner decides to leave you, you may think, “They left me because I’m not good enough.”
Conversely, if you attribute negative events to external causes, you might think, “Perhaps my partner wasn’t ready for a commitment, and the relationship wasn’t meant to be.”
Fortunately, explanatory style is not a fixed trait and can be changed for both optimists and pessimists alike.
Our explanatory style derives from our individual experience. Depending on our life experiences, we become either pessimists, believing we have no control over our fate, or optimists, feeling a sense of control over our destinies. Children often model their parents’ behaviours, including their explanatory style. Consequently, if parents tend to explain negative events pessimistically, their child may also adopt a similar explanatory style.
In addition to parents, teachers also have a significant impact on children’s behaviour and explanatory style. Optimism is approximately 25% to 30% heritable. But, this means there is room for other factors to influence optimism quite substantially. Furthermore, life crises have a significant impact on the development of one’s explanatory style. If children learn to overcome crises and view adversity as temporary, they are more likely to develop an optimistic explanatory style.
Hence, childhood crises do not necessarily have negative consequences for children’s explanatory style. The way these crises are handled by primary caregivers can make a difference.
The key takeaway here is that since explanatory style is learned, we have the ability to change the way we speak to ourselves. Even if we have acquired a pessimistic explanatory style in childhood, we can work to change it and adopt a more optimistic outlook.
The ABCDE technique, developed by psychologist Albert Ellis, is an effective way to handle negative self-talk. This technique involves three steps: adversity, belief, and consequence
A – Adversity or paying attention to any adverse incidents, thoughts, and feelings.
B – Beliefs and how they are impacted by pessimistic thoughts.
C – Consequences of negative thoughts and feelings.
Once we understand our behaviour through the ABC model, we can add a DE to the same to create a positive change in our behaviour.
D – Disputing irrational beliefs.
E – creating Effective new beliefs.
However, it can be challenging to recognize these ABCs in your own life since most of our self-talk is unconscious. You can start by trying to listen to your self-talk and identify at least five ABCs that have a negative effect on your life.
To do this, record all three ABC components when examining your negative self-talk. Adversity can describe any challenging event, such as an argument with your partner or a speeding ticket.
Belief concerns how you interpret such situations, and it’s crucial to distinguish thoughts from feelings. For instance, a belief can be “I’m a bad parent,” “I’m incompetent,” “I did a good job,” or “My memory is terrible.”
Finally, consider what you did as a result of A and B, and how you felt. For example, did you cry, feel miserable, shout and get mad, or felt embarrassed?
Once you have identified a few ABCs in your life, you can work on changing them. It’s important to realize that the beliefs you’ve recorded will largely determine the consequences. Therefore, changing negative beliefs to more positive ones can result in more positive consequences.
As we have seen, optimists tend to interpret stressful situations as specific, temporary, and externally caused. If you do not respond to these situations this way, don’t worry, there are several ways to change your beliefs.
The first method is called disputation, which involves testing every belief through four questions:
Is the belief actually true? What evidence supports it? For instance, if one client doesn’t buy from you, does it mean you’re bad at your job? If you answer “yes,” then how can you explain the successful sales you’ve made this week?
Is there an alternative explanation? Here, focus on specific, changeable, and impersonal causes. For example, if your colleagues suddenly stop talking when you enter the office, is it because they were talking about you behind your back? Or is it possible they were discussing something unrelated?
What are the implications of your belief, if it were true? How likely are these implications, and are they really that bad?
Finally, ask yourself if the thought is useful. If it isn’t, can you let it go and instead focus on changing the situation next time?
Once you’ve practised disputing your beliefs, you can move on to the second method: externalising the voices. This involves having a close friend or family attack you using your negative self-beliefs, and you must defend yourself by verbalising your defence out loud.
Consider this example:
Adversity: I received a negative review from my boss at work. She said that I am not outgoing enough to work in sales and will instead have me work in the store.
Beliefs: I have been working really hard and obviously it does not matter. I hate my boss and this stupid job. I don’t want to see her or anyone at work for that matter. I am fed up with the whole thing.
Consequences: I got my review two days ago and I am still furious. I really want to tell my boss off and then quit so that she can deal with covering my hours for the next week. I called in sick already yesterday since I could not fathom seeing her. I don’t know what I am going to do tomorrow though. I am scheduled to work a double shift and don’t have any more sick days left.
Disputation: Although I think my boss could have been more fairer in my review, she is probably right that my personality is not as naturally outgoing as many of the other salespeople. I am not always comfortable talking to all the customers and that probably shows through, but at the same time, I am not completely incapable as she made it seem. I guess she must see this on some level since she still wants me to work there, just in a different position. If she really disliked me, she could have just fired me. Maybe I am taking this too personally. I really do like my colleagues and the pay is pretty good. I guess in the store, I will have more time to interact with my colleagues and I don’t have to worry so much about my wardrobe. Professional work clothes are expensive!
Energisation/Effecting a new belief: I feel much less angry. I am still a little bothered by how the review focused only on the negatives, but I know my boss had a lot of reviews to do that day so she was probably just trying to conserve time. It was hard to admit that I am not as outgoing as some of my colleagues, but I do realise that this is the case. I am actually looking forward to spending more time with my colleagues in the stockroom and not feeling so on edge all the time.
By practising these methods regularly, you can change your negative beliefs and become an optimist.
D & E can happen when we:
Look for Opportunities: One strategy to cultivate optimism is to seek out opportunities in difficult situations. Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of an event, try to find a positive alternative. For instance, if you find yourself waiting for an appointment as the other person has not turned up on time, use the unexpected free time to catch up with a friend or read a book. Similarly, if an injury or illness has disrupted your regular workout routine, focus on what you can do, such as gentle stretching or using resistance bands. By engaging in substitute activities, you can foster a more positive outlook and remind yourself that challenging circumstances are temporary and can be overcome with persistence and resilience.
Focus on your strengths: The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley recommends an exercise to reflect on personal strengths and use them daily. First, think about your personal strengths; such as creativity, perseverance, kindness, or curiosity. Choose one and plan how to use it today. For example, if you choose perseverance, make a list of challenging tasks you have encountered recently and attempt to tackle each one. If you choose curiosity, try an activity that you have never tried before. Repeat this process every day for a week, using the same strength across multiple days or trying a different one each day. By practising this exercise, you can cultivate your personal strengths and enhance your well-being.
Practise gratitude One common trait of optimists is their ability to express gratitude for what they have and to share it with others. You can cultivate this habit by keeping a gratitude journal, where you record the many gifts and blessings for which you are thankful. This could include your current state of good health, a kind gesture you received, a delicious meal you enjoyed, and much more. Make it a point to add to your gratitude journal regularly, and take time to reflect on your entries to reinforce your sense of appreciation and positivity.
Create a mental image of your best possible self: Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years? Recently I did an issue on Destination postcard. Revisit that issue if need be. This exercise helps you address three essential questions:
What are you doing now?
What is important to you?
What do you care about and why?
The answers can help you focus on new goals and areas of improvement you’ve always wanted to pursue, but couldn’t because of other life obligations, like work and raising kids. This can help turn your attention toward something stimulating and exciting, which can increase your sense of great possibilities and a more positive future.
Optimism has been shown to be beneficial for both mental and physical health, and optimists generally lead happier and more successful lives. The good news is that both optimism and pessimism are learned responses to difficult situations, which means that you can cultivate optimism using various techniques.
Here’s what you can do:
When faced with adversity, think ABC.
If you encounter a challenging situation, use the ABC technique to challenge negative self-talk. For example, if your spouse is abrupt with you on the phone, instead of thinking “Maybe they don’t love me anymore” or “I’m always interrupting them,” use the ABC technique to disrupt these negative thoughts. Doing so will help you become happier over time and prevent you from lashing out at your partner, who may simply be in a hurry.
Use ABC to avoid thinking of a situation as permanent.
Suppose you ruin your diet by eating a slice of cake. Instead of thinking, “I’ll never be able to stick to my diet and will always be chubby,” and then eating the entire cake, use the ABC technique to change your thinking. Say to yourself, “I just ate a slice of cake, which was delicious. Tomorrow, I’ll return to my diet, and I’m confident, I’ll see excellent results on the scale.”