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What is optimism?

Optimism is faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence. ... No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to unchartered land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirt.
Helen Keller

Optimism is commonly thought of as being a rather trivial attribute. An optimist is widely thought of as someone who sees the silver lining in every cloud and views the world through rose-tinted spectacles (or a glass that's always half full).

Pollyanna is their role model and if they just think positively, everything will turn out for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Some of these attitudes can be witnessed in optimists, but with more than 20 years of solid scientific research into the subject, it's clear that optimism goes much deeper than was previously thought.

There are two main ways to define optimism. Scheier and Carver, for example, define optimism as 'the global generalized tendency to believe that one will generally experience good versus bad outcomes in life.' In everyday language this means 'looking on the bright side of life.' In such a definition, pessimism is the tendency to believe 'if something will go wrong for me, it will'. The other main way to define optimism is to use the concept of 'explanatory style'. This is the approach taken by Professor Martin Seligman, the leader of the Positive Psychology movement and so is the one which is most appropriate for us to outline. Scheier and Carver's optimism questionnaire (LOT-R) is included in the tools, tips and techniques section. 

Explanatory optimism

The basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes.
Martin Seligman

Professor Martin Seligman is author of Learned Optimism and co-author of The Optimistic Child. He argues that each of us has our own 'explanatory style', a way of thinking about the causes of things that happen in our lives. We develop our explanatory style during childhood and, unless deliberate steps are taken to change it, it will last for the whole of our life, acting as a prism through which we explain to ourselves why things, good or bad, happen to us.

He argues that there are three central dimensions which we use to interpret events in our lives, these dimensions are permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation. We outline his analysis here but you can also listen to him outline explanatory style in the audio section. 

Permanence versus temporary

People whose explanatory style is pessimistic will assume that when something goes wrong, then it will always go wrong. If they make an inadequate presentation, they assume that they will always be poor at public speaking. 'There's no point in me pitching for that contract, I'll just screw up the presentation - the Powerpoint will break down and folk will never feel that I've made a good job of it.'

Those who have an optimistic explanatory style will simply tell themselves that it will go better next time, that it's just a temporary setback. 'Maybe my preparation wasn't good enough - and anyway, the audience had just had a big lunch and wasn't very lively. Next time I'll do more preparation and I'll try to get a better slot.'

Dr Karen Reivich, co-author of The Resilience Factor and The Optimistic Child is a colleague of Dr Martin Seligman and has worked with him and other researchers on a wide range of studies. She shares Seligman's conviction about the importance of explanatory style and has developed the model further. Her version of the permanence dimensions of optimism/pessimism she calls 'always versus not always'. How lasting across time do you understand the cause of the problem to be? So a student who explains an exam failure by saying 'I'm stupid' has an 'always' view of their problem, seeing it as lasting across time, and will probably take a pessimistic approach to the re-sits. Eventually this negative belief becomes permanent. Their class-mate who also fails but says 'I didn't do any studying before that exam' has a 'not always' explanation and is likely to take an optimistic view of their next test. They see the situation as impermanent, something that can be changed.

Pervasiveness - specific versus global

When things go wrong for pessimists, they tend to catastrophise. They see their failures as all-pervasive, or global:

  • I'll never be any good at netball
  • I'm a total failure as a parent
  • None of the management like me

Optimists don't like failure either, but they see it as a specific setback rather than all-pervasive:

  • I didn't play well on Saturday, but I missed a lot of training because of my sore knee
  • I've not been spending enough time with my daughter
  • My boss doesn't like me, but I get on well with the other executives

The opposite applies when explaining the pervasiveness of good events. The pessimist is likely to see successes as highly specific:

  • I had a good game, but only because their defence was lousy
  • My son was pleasant to me because I was able to help him with his physics
  • I only got that promotion because I won that big contract

Pessimistic people don't see themselves as having global attributes, skills and characteristics that can pervade every part of their life. Again, optimists see things differently. Good events are seen as all-pervasive, or global, in their lives. 

Reivich describes this dimension as 'everything versus not everything'.  She too sees this as being whether you tend to globalise, to catastrophise, to see a problem as flowing through many aspects of your life.  If you do see setbacks in one area of your life as permeating others, then you are an 'everything' person. But if you tend to compartmentalise and come up with very specific explanations for what caused a negative event, then you're more of a 'not everything' thinker.  

Personal - internal versus external

This axis is about deciding who is to blame when things go wrong. Pessimists will blame themselves, thus internalising the problem. Optimists will tend to blame others, or external events that were beyond their control, thus externalising the blame.

Those who tend to blame themselves for everything that goes wrong are likely to have low self-esteem, while those who find external reasons for setbacks will generally feel more positive about themselves.

Recently, Seligman has had second thoughts about whether it is worth exploring the personal dimension since doing so can encourage people merely to blame others for what goes wrong. However, this remains an important aspect of Reivich's work. She prefers to use the labels 'me/not me', and argues that this dimension is not about whether you blame yourself or other people, it's about adding new information when considering what went wrong. If you are a 'me' person then you are likely to blame yourself for what went wrong, but if you usually believe that the cause of things that go wrong is 'not me' then you will seek an external explanation. If you are late for a meeting and you put it down to unusually high traffic congestion, then that's a 'not me' explanation, whereas 'I never leave myself enough time to get to meetings' is a 'me' explanation.

'I don't believe you can be an effective problem solver if you don't consider where the cause of the problem lies.  And so my goal isn't to take someone who's a 'me' person and say 'okay simply point the finger outwards and blame everyone else', she says.

Her argument is that if you are a 'me' person you should notice everything that you did that led to this problem. But you should also consider other things that contributed to the problem.  

'Similarly if you're a 'not me' person and you're always blaming others, my challenge to you would be to say 'Great, you notice everything about the weather and everyone else, but is there one thing you did?' I don't think we can just dismiss this dimension,' she says.

So an optimistic thinker is someone who, when problems arise, tends to say, 'not me', 'not always', 'not everything'.  So when bad things happen, their style of thinking focuses them on the causes of the problem that were about other people's circumstance, that are changeable and that are very specific and not going to lead to lots of other problems in their life.  Optimism is - 'not me', 'not always', 'not everything'.

If, however, when things go wrong or adversity strikes, and you usually see the causes of the problems as being about you, hard to change, long-lasting and likely to cause problems in other parts of your life as well, then you tend to have a more pessimistic thinking style.  

Addressing the Centre for Confidence and Well-being?s Vanguard Programme in 2006, Dr Reivich emphasised the fact that we can learn to become more optimistic.

'I want to stress that these are thinking styles, these are not personality traits.  And because they are thinking styles, they are changeable.  So even if today your style is to be more of a pessimistic thinker, we have strong data to suggest that by learning some resilience and optimism skills, you can absolutely increase your ability to focus on other causes of the problem, particularly those that are more changeable and are more local,' says Reivich. 

Gender differences in optimism

Men are optimistic about work, attributing failure to temporary, local and external causes; they are pessimistic about interpersonal failures, invoking permanent,  pervasive and personal causes. Women are just the reverse: they are optimistic about social setbacks but pessimistic about achievement.
Martin Seligman

Although average levels of optimism are roughly the same for men and women, research reveals, as the above quote indicates, significant gender differences when it comes to the things we are optimistic or pessimistic about. 

Seligman suggests that one of the reasons why men tend to get higher up the career ladder than their female colleagues could be because when women experience failure they give themselves pessimistic explanations and are socially conditioned to accept those explanations, while men do the opposite.

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