How To Become More Optimistic and Live A Happier Life

Think positive thoughts and your life will be more positive. Hmm… If only it were that simple! Do you know Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” song? Click the link if you’ve never heard it before and start this read off with a serious giggle!

Do you tend to look on the bright side or the dark side? Do you consider yourself more a pessimist/realist or do you lean more realist/optimist? It’s important to know and to understand the implications of both if you’re interested in getting the most out of your life. It’s not just a question of learning how to think positive. There’s a lot more to enhancing your well-being, feeling happier, and learning how to see the opportunity in each and every one of life’s challenges than the notion of just focusing on positive thoughts.

Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often than optimists. The same studies show that optimists perform better at school and university, in the workplace and on the playing field. They age better, enjoy better health and some evidence even suggests they live longer. Hell, I’m in! Now, you might think you know whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist - I definitely thought I did - but it’s not always that clear. Tests reveal traces of pessimism in the speech of people who would never think of themselves as pessimists. The same tests show that these traces are picked up by listeners who then respond more negatively to the speaker.

The good news is that you can learn to be an optimist and, as big a fan as I am of a positive quote or affirmation, that ain’t going to do it for you! You’re going to have to learn a new set of cognitive skills. So if you’ve ever magnified what someone else might consider a mere setback into a full blown catastrophe, you’re going to benefit a lot from this post and the resources I mention. Let’s take a look at how to begin your own personal transformation and become more optimistic.

Get Clarity

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? You don’t have to ponder and give your opinion because there’s actually a scientific test you can take. Martin Seligman is often described as the father of Positive Psychology. He is the director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center and Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology in the Penn Department of Psychology. Dr Seligman in his book “Learned Optimism” makes it clear that optimism is not “positive thinking”. Indeed he states that research over many years in this field has found that positive statements you make to yourself have very little if any effect. What is extremely impactful is what you think when you fail and whether you use the power of “non-negative thinking”.

You can take the test here

After you complete the 48 questions, and to calculate your score accurately, you will need the following reference code:

Permanence Bad Score Questions 5, 13, 20, 21, 29, 33, 42, and 46

Permanence Good Score Questions 2, 10, 14, 15, 24, 26, 38, and 40


Pervasiveness Bad Score Questions 8, 16, 17, 18, 22, 32, 44, and 48

Pervasiveness Good Score Questions 6, 7, 28, 31, 34, 35, 37, and 43.


Stuff Of Hope Pervasiveness Bad Score + Permanence Bad Score


Personalization Bad Score Questions 3, 9, 19, 25, 30, 39, 41, and 47

Personalization Good Score Questions 1, 4, 11, 12, 23, 27, 36, and 45

To interpret the results of your test, as the Stanford site indicates, it’s best to refer directly to Dr Seligman’s book from page 44. If you’re not up for that I will give you the outline of what the interpretation looks like but if you’re interested in doing the test don’t read the explanation first because your test will be invalidated if you take it after reading what’s below.

Essentially the questionnaire is looking at explanatory style; how we think about the causes of the misfortunes, mishaps and disappointments in our lives, both small and big. The people who tend to give up easily are those who have developed a habit of explaining their misfortunes as permanent, pervasive and personal. That explanatory style is a habit of thought which we learn through childhood and adolescence and, Seligman explains, stems directly from our view of our place in the world - whether we think we are valuable and deserving or worthless and hopeless.

Let’s take a closer look at explanatory style!

Explanatory Style: Permanence

When something bad happens in your life you have a choice how you see that event. If your habit is to believe that the cause of any bad event that befalls you is permanent you are more likely to feel helpless and give up. Do any of these statements resonate with you;

“My boss is an asshole!”


“I’ll never lose weight!”


“My mom/husband/teacher always nags me.”


“You never let me do anything I want to do.”


“It’s impossible to get ahead in this company it’s so competitive.”

If you recognize the “always” “never” pattern, here you tend towards a pessimistic style. What about these statements;

“My boss seems to be in a bad mood today”


“I’m finding it hard to lose weight if I don’t exercise as well as eat healthy”


“My husband nags me when I don’t pay my credit card bill on time”


“You don’t let me go out on school nights unless it’s a special occasion and I have all my homework done”


“There are a lot of talented people at this company and it takes hard work and dedication to stand out and get ahead”

See the difference? In the statements immediately above there is a particular timeframe or situation to which the challenge or obstacle attaches. These qualifiers reflect a more optimistic style. Obstacles are seen as transient.

For the test you took if the Permanence Bad Score totaled 0 or 1 you are very optimistic in this dimension. A score of 2 to 3 is moderately optimistic with 4 being average. Scoring 5 to 6 is quite pessimistic and if you were a 7 or 8 the strategies that follow for moving from a pessimistic to optimistic outlook will be especially helpful for you. Keep reading!!

How about when things go well in life for you. Do you believe those events have permanent causes or do you tend to explain the event as merely due to luck or temporary, transient circumstances? Which of these sound more familiar;

“I got lucky”


“My opponent didn’t give their best on the day”


“The other sales team seemed a little distracted on the day”


“I try hard”

Here all the explanations reflect transient causes related to effort, mood or a particular time. What about these explanations for positive outcomes and events;

“I’m always lucky”


“I’m better than the opposition”


“My sales team is better than the competition”


“I’m talented”

This is how optimistic people explain positive events to themselves; they take credit and explain the cause of their good fortune as permanent or due to an inherent trait or ability.

How did you score?

If your Permanent Good total score was 7 or 8 you are very optimistic in this dimension. A score of 6 is moderately optimistic with 4 or 5 as average. A 3 score is moderately pessimistic and 1 or 2 is very pessimistic. Again, don’t be disheartened because optimism can be learned and we’ll get to that.

Explanatory Style: Pervasiveness

When you encounter a setback do you tend to view it as specific to its particular circumstances or do you ascribe a universal explanation? Some people can put their problems neatly in a particular box and not let them bleed into other areas of their lives. Other people allow a failure in one area of their lives to infect all others and tend to give up on everything and exhibit high levels of helplessness. So what is your habit; do you tend to give universal or specific explanations for the bad events that happen in your life?

Which of these explanation styles sounds more familiar to you;

SPECIFIC

I don’t get along with her

I didn’t get much out of that self-help book

My manager gives really tough performance management reviews

That date went really poorly

vs.

UNIVERSAL

Everyone hates me

Books are useless

All managers are harsh and unfair

All guys are jerks


All the statements in the first group are specific to the particular event. So if this is your explanatory style, you feel bad about the particular event or even helpless to improve that particular situation, but it doesn’t bleed into other areas. In the second group we see the universal explanations. This is catastrophizing where one thing goes wrong in one area and we expand our helplessness far beyond the parameters of the original issue. There is no compartmentalizing here. If this is our explanatory style we are much less resilient when faced with set-backs.

Let’s look at your score here. A Pervasive Bad score of 0 or 1 is very optimistic, 2 or 3 is moderately optimistic, and 4 is average. A score of 5 or 6 is moderately pessimistic and 7 or 8 is very pessimistic.

When we look at the good events and our explanatory style here the rationale is reversed. If things go well and we tend to give universal explanations then this is indicative of an optimistic style whereas if we explain away good events and outcomes as being particular to their circumstances then we essentially short-change ourselves and exhibit a more pessimistic style.

Take a look at some examples of the two explanatory styles for good events here;

SPECIFIC

I’m good at Math

She found me charming

I executed that project well

That stock choice paid off

vs.

UNIVERSAL

I’m intelligent

I am charming

I’m great at my job

I make great investments


For your Pervasive Good score award, 7 or 8 is very optimistic, 6 is moderately so, and 4 or 5 is average. If you scored 3 you are moderately pessimistic and any score below is very pessimistic.

HOPE

Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation
— Dr Martin Seligman

Dr Seligman goes on to say;

On the other hand permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.
— Dr Seligman

Seligman places particular emphasis on your Hope Score for bad events which is calculated by adding your Permanence Bad Score and your Pervasiveness Bad Score. The key for that number is as follows;

SCORE INTERPRETATION

0, 1, 2 Extraordinarily Hopeful

3, 4, 5, 6 Moderately Hopeful

7, 8 Average

9, 10, 11 Moderately Hopeless

12, 13, 14, 15, or 16 Severely Hopeless

Finally let’s look at the explanatory style in terms of personalization.

Explanatory Style: Personalization

As I’ve said already when bad events occur we have a choice how to view them. We can choose to internalize and blame ourselves or we can externalize and blame others or circumstances. Which of the following explanatory styles most resonates with you;


PERSONAL/ INTERNAL/ LOW SELF-ESTEEM

I have zero creative talent

I’m so dumb

I’m really insecure

vs.

IMPERSONAL/ EXTERNAL/ HIGH SELF-ESTEEM

I didn’t have the advantage of attending any art programs growing up

This exercise is dumb

I grew up in poverty

Of the three dimensions to explanatory style personalization is perhaps the easiest to understand. It controls how we feel about ourselves when bad or good events happen but it is the other dimensions of permanence and pervasiveness which determine what we do. Again when we personalize the causes of good events this is an optimistic approach. For example a pessimist would attribute good fortune to “a stroke of luck” whereas a pessimist would attribute it to her or his own talent and personal attributes.

To interpret your scores in this area please refer to Dr Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, as it is not appropriate that I share the entire scoring process here. This is not an affiliate link.

Your overall score is computed by adding all your bad scores together and from that total you subtract all your good scores. A score above 8 is very optimistic across the board. A score of 6 to 8 is moderately optimistic. Scoring 3 to 5 is average, 1 or 2 is a moderately pessimistic score and a score of 0 or below is very pessimistic.

Regardless of whether you read Dr Seligman’s book or not the explanations above should give you a clear indication of whether or not your explanatory style tends to lean more towards pessimism or optimism. Considering the many benefits of optimism both to our physical and emotional health as well as our career prospects and interpersonal relationships, it warrants taking a look at the core strategies for learning optimism.

Your explanatory style is developed in childhood and so the explanatory style of a child’s primary caregiver has a huge impact on the explanatory style that the child will develop. If you’re interested in measuring your child’s explanatory style you can have her/him take the Children’s Attributional Style Questionnaire  (the “CASQ”). The questionnaire and scoring key is available directly from Dr Seligman’s office at the University of Pennsylvania or you can purchase his book, Learned Optimism, which also contains the questionnaire. The test takes approximately 15 minutes to administer and comes with guidance on how to introduce the topic to your child. https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/services/optimism-assessment

As the mother of three children aged 11, 12 and 16 and having only recently embarked in earnest on my own journey of personal development I am eager to administer this test to all three of my children. For my 16 year old Dr Seligman says the adult assessment is most appropriate and both are available in the book and through the above link. Considering my own mother suffered on and off from depression in my youth and that I too suffered from depression after the birth of my third child I think it is a very worthwhile investment of my time and attention. If you feel the same let me know in the comments!

Before we move on to look at the steps we take to learn how to become more optimistic, and thereby model the behavior for our own children, I just want to deal with the issue of realism. There’s a balance, particularly when we speak about the personalization dimension of explanatory style, between externalizing causes and recognizing areas for personal growth. If we were to constantly externalize all causes of bad events and obstacles in life, we would miss out on the learning opportunities life presents to us. This will become clearer below when we look at the process for learning optimism.

LEARNING TO BE MORE OPTIMISTIC!

Both pessimists and optimists suffer tragedies and setbacks in life but it is the optimists who weather these events better. They have the ability and resilience to get back up, dust themselves off and re-engage. When we speak of learning to be more optimistic it means that we are learning to change the way we speak to ourselves about the setbacks in our lives.

Dr Seligman sets out a number of very instructive guidelines for when to use optimism. This is where we’re injecting realism into a situation and opening ourselves up to a potential learning. Below is Dr Seligman’s verbatim guidance in this domain.

  • If you are in an achievement situation (getting a promotion, selling a product, writing a difficult report, winning a game), use optimism.

  • If you are concerned about how you will feel (fighting off depression, keeping up your morale), use optimism.

  • If the situation is apt to be protracted and your physical health is an issue, use optimism.

The occasions when optimism is not the right approach -

  • If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future, do not use optimism.

  • If your goal is to counsel others whose future is dim, do not use optimism.

  • If you want to appear sympathetic to the troubles of others, do not begin with optimism, although using it later, once confidence and empathy are established, may help.

The overarching guideline for when not to use optimism is to consider what is the cost of failure in any particular situation. When the cost of failure is high optimism is not appropriate. When the cost is low however - the shy person instigating a conversation, the salesperson making that one extra sales call, the bored executive putting out feelers for a new position.

STEP 1

Keep an ABC Journal

How do you react when you face a challenging situation? This is what the ABC Journal will track. It stands for Adversity - Belief - Consequence and the idea is to note down every time you face an adversity and the beliefs that are exposed thereby (how you interpret the adversity), and how you feel or the action you take as a consequence of that belief in those particular circumstances. The adversity can be anything. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. Someone can look at you sideways and that can trigger a belief and a consequence. For example an entry might look like this;

Adversity

Your friend hasn’t called you in weeks.

Belief

You think: “She doesn’t value our friendship”

Consequence

You feel worthless and depressed  

It’s sufficient to note just 5 instances and then review them looking for the link between belief and consequence. What you will notice is that pessimistic explanations (as in my example above) will result in passivity and dejection whereas optimistic explanations will energize.


STEP 2

Distraction and Disputation

Following immediately on from Step 1 there are two ways you can deal with your pessimistic explanations as soon as you become aware of them. The first, quite simply is to distract yourself by thinking of something else. The second approach is to dispute the belief. This second approach is more effective in the long run as a disputed belief is less likely over time to re-occur.

There are many techniques you can use to distract yourself from ruminating - that habit of repetitive unhelpful pessimistic thoughts. It’s possible to interrupt these thoughts in a number of ways. Some people have found it useful to wear a rubber band around their wrist and snap it every time they find themselves ruminating. Others find that carrying a card with “STOP” in large red letters that they look at when they catch themselves ruminating jolts them out of the pattern.

Once you have caught yourself ruminating you now need to divert your attention to something else. One way of doing this is to pick up an object and direct all your attention to that object - how does it feel? Is is heavy, smooth? What color is it? How does it smell? Give it all your attention for a short period of time to successfully shift your thoughts from ruminating.

Another strategy which is also highly effective is to write down the thought that is ruminating and set a time to consider the issue later. In this way the thought is anchored to a specific time in the future and so this pattern of rumination is no longer necessary. Make sure you do take out your piece of paper though and consider the thought later.

Disputation

As useful as distraction is disputing the belief is more effective in the long term. How good are you at making an argument? As a law graduate I love making an argument so personally I find disputation works really well for me. All you’re doing is looking for a different perspective in the circumstances; an alternative interpretation of the circumstances which can lead you to adjust your belief.

I find that this works best when you distance yourself from the situation and take the perspective of an objective bystander. So, for example, you interviewed for a new job and you get a call to say the company isn’t going to make you an offer. You feel disappointed which quickly slips into ruminating and thoughts like;

“I knew I wouldn’t get the job. I don’t know why I even bothered to apply. They were right to reject me. I couldn’t have done it. I’m just not good enough…..blah, blah, blah”

But clever you jumps in and disputes this interpretation with something like this;

“Yes, the job was a stretch but I’m never going to move up if I don’t stretch myself in this way. I may not have been successful on this occasion but I now have some more experience under my belt. I’m going to ask for some constructive feedback from the recruiter to see where I need to focus my attention in order to be successful the next time. I’m working towards a brighter future and the path isn’t a straight line. I’m learning and growing and I’m absolutely capable of getting this job in the future when I implement the feedback”.

Now instead of feeling dejected and hopeless I feel energized to try again.

Step 3

Distance

Don’t trust everything you believe! It’s important to challenge your beliefs and get curious about them. Where did you get them? When were they formed? Why do you believe them? What evidence do you have to support them and what evidence do you have to dispute them?

Get some distance from them and take an objective stance. It’s easy enough to distance ourselves from any negatives that others may toss our way. After all they don’t know us as well as we know ourselves. We’re quick to rally to our own defence in those circumstances, but not so much when we are the ones giving ourselves a hard time.

Our negative beliefs about ourselves are often distortions. They are destructive habits of thinking rooted in unpleasant past experiences. However, we are the author - because they come from us, and are about us, we elevate these beliefs to fact status - oops!

Being aware is the key to making progress here, coupled with curiosity. Imagine that this is an issue that your very best friend is struggling with and approach it with that distance. You’ll be much more creative in your outlook and interpretation.

Not A Lawyer? Some Tips For Arguing With Yourself!

One of the areas where I have to do a lot of work on myself is toning down how confrontational I can be. Coming from a large family it was important growing up to learn how to stand your ground pretty early on. That and a career in sales and law all contributed to a near obsession with winning any and all arguments! So what I know I have in excess I know others struggle at the opposite end of the scale, and are overly passive and find it difficult to mount an argument. So here is some structure to help you win an argument with yourself.

Evidence

What evidence do you have for the belief you hold? In court it’s all about presenting evidence to disprove the other side’s case and that’s what you do here too. Become the investigator and search for evidence and evaluate it. This isn’t ‘rah-rah’ happy positive thinking. Here we’re looking a cold hard evidence. In the job rejection example above where the applicant is descending into a not good enough inner narrative we would be looking at evidence of how strong her/application application really was, how many of the job criteria she/he possessed, past experience that was relevant to the new role etc.

This is where we’ll expose the catastrophizing and distortion that has replaced any rationale evaluation of the adverse event. We get real!

Alternatives

I lost the job opportunity because I suck! Nah! Ditch the drama and let’s look for what other possible explanations there might be. There is rarely just one possible reason for any outcome. You were exhausted on the day of the interview because you were up all night with a sick child. A friend of one of the interviewers was among the candidates and although you did a great interview maybe the decision was largely pre-made.

Whatever the circumstances of the adverse situation there is definitely more than one possible explanation. Seek alternatives! Ask yourself;

What alternative, less destructive explanation could there be for this situation/outcome?

As you consider all possible alternatives it’s important to focus on changeable, specific and non-personal causes. If you focus on building this skill of looking for these types of alternative causes and explanations you will go a long way to building your optimism muscle. And no this isn’t just feel good airy fairy b.s. this really works! You’re destroying the destructive pessimistic habit and building one that serves you.

Implications

Reality Check!! Yes, sometimes a belief you hold about yourself will in fact be true (see - I told you I wasn’t a fan of self-delusion)! Sometimes the facts won’t be on our side. It’s important in these circumstances to “decatastrophize” the implications of those facts.

You break your diet and eat a truck load of junk food one night when out with your friends. You might descend into some destructive self-talk calling yourself all sorts of names and believing you’ll never reach your health goals. Well, is that really the implication? Is one night of unrestrained indulgence really the end of a healthy lifestyle or merely a blip? Circle back to the evidence step and evaluate all the positive steps before the over indulgence. What’s a more reasonable implication?

Usefulness

I come back to this one ALL the time by asking myself;

“What is this belief costing me?”
or

“Does this belief serve me?”

It’s important to consider the consequences of holding a belief. Even if the belief is true ask yourself does it serve you. In the example of the dieter, maybe she/he has zero self-control in the presence of unhealthy food but how useful is it to hold a belief that you’re a glutton/ that you can never lose weight? Not very!

Consider how changeable the belief may be and what small actions you could begin to take to change it. How can you serve your best interests? That’s your focus.

Concluding Thoughts

I think that learning optimism is one of the most valuable gifts you can give to yourself and those around you. I am deeply committed to this work for myself and see the positive results daily, not only in my own experiences but the ripple effect the changes I make have on all those around me.

As a parent I am much more vigilant of the language I use around my children. I am conscious of my explanatory style and look always to the changeable, specific, and non-personal explanations for adversities and guide my children to look at their life challenges in this way also. If we can introduce our children to these tools and techniques as early as possible I think we go a long way to helping them build resilience. I highly recommend Dr Seligman’s work in this area and in his book Learned Optimism you will find a treasure trove of resources to begin your own and your family’s journey to a more optimistic and happy life.

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