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The ABCs (and DE) of Optimism

Martin Seligman PhD, in his 1990 bestseller Learned Optimism, explains the benefits of an optimistic style, offers enlightening tests on how to determine if you are optimist or pessimist and provides a practical method for changing your outlook to improve your life. Dr. Seligman is a professor of Psychology and a past president of the American Psychological Association. This is a summary of his approach.

Our responses to events, however grand or insignificant, can be identified as either pessimistic or optimistic. Those whose beliefs score high on the optimistic scale tend to reap great benefits in life compared to pessimists, including greater success in business, relationships, sports, and even physical health. Our degree of optimism or pessimism is directly related to our “explanatory style”, which is how we respond to events. Our responses have three components: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization. Apply these three components to negative events. The pessimist sees a negative event with permanence - that it is long-lasting. Viewing this event as pervasive, or universal, gives us the belief that we have little ability to change and it will always be this way. How we personalize a negative event suggests whether we internalize it and blame ourselves, or externalize it and blame others or current circumstances. While not taking responsibility for one’s actions related to negative events can have other negative consequences, nonetheless it is a characteristic of the optimists. So, those who view negative events as permanent (to “catastrophize” an event), pervasive (the problem is universal), and personal (it’s my fault, there is something wrong with me) tend to be pessimists, and such beliefs also can lead to depression. On the flip side, viewing a good event with the three P’s are the traits of an optimist – for example, believing that the good events are here to stay, they will make everything else better, and I am great for making it happen.

Here is one example of applying the three P’s to determine if one’s approach is optimistic or pessimistic: I go for a job interview and I am really excited about getting this job. After the interview I get an emailed form letter saying that they appreciated my time and interest but they chose someone else. The pessimist would respond, “I’m just not good enough”, “I’ll never get a good job”, “This economy will never improve to help me out.” An optimist might respond: “That interviewer seemed to be having a bad day and wasn’t paying attention”, “I know I’m smart, all I need to do is keep trying”, or “This industry is not the strongest right now.” The optimist does not view the event as permanent, pervasive or personal, which results in more empowerment, while the pessimist becomes more helpless, believing success is not within reach. Interestingly, Dr. Seligman believes that the pessimists tend to have a greater grip on reality, yet the cost is less success in life.

Take the online test here or in chapter 3 of the book to determine if you lean towards optimism or pessimism and if you see room for improvement, apply the ABC’s plus the DE’s to negative events in your life as they occur. Some beliefs are quite subtle but still important to understanding one's style.

“A” stands for Adversity, which is the negative event. For example, you got in a car crash, or you were ghosted on social media, or you burned your toast this morning. Keep a diary of your “A’s”

“B” stands for Belief, which is your response to the adversity. For example, “No one liked my post because I’m not likable and people just don’t care anymore,” or “Maybe no one was looking online this morning, or maybe some people looked and simply chose not to respond today,” as the optimist might believe.

“C” stands for Consequences. Our beliefs in how we respond to adversity leads directly to mental and even physical consequences. The pessimist suffers a whole range of negative consequences from pessimistic beliefs including a feeling of helplessness which kills motivation and initiative, can lead to depression, plus a greater susceptibility to physical ailments.

“D” stands for Disputation. This is the key to move away from pessimism towards an optimistic personal explanatory style. Review and write down your initial reaction or belief about adversities. If they are permanent, pervasive or personal, then re-write the belief to dispute each of these reactions. Once you change the belief, the consequences change automatically, which leads to the positive effects of an optimistic outlook. This is not easy to do in the moment, as our destructive beliefs can be deeply ingrained in our habits developed over many years and from past experiences. There are four methods of Disputing negative beliefs: 1) Evidence – identify evidence to contradict that belief (my job qualifications are better than most, of course I’ll get a good job), 2) Alternatives – maybe there are some innocent reasons I haven’t thought of why no one liked my post, 3) Implications – even if my negative belief is right, so what? Does it matter? Chances are it doesn’t, and 4) Usefulness – even if I’m right in my negativity, does that serve me well or might it be destructive? “Drivers are so bad these days, they are everywhere, it is impossible to avoid accidents anymore.” If a belief is going to be destructive to your psyche, change it anyway even if you think you are right.

“E” stands for Energization – as you go through keeping track of your immediate belief responses, and then changing them or noting the optimistic responses in contrast, notice how you feel. When you convert your negative beliefs it energizes you, it makes you feel better, and this is central to success and happiness.

Dr. Seligman demonstrated that we CAN choose the way we think, and that how we think affects how we live and whether we will be happy, healthy and successful. Learn optimism rather than succumbing to helplessness.

Chris Jones


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