Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Optimism and Happiness


If you have been reading the papers on this web site about happiness, you are obviously interested in maximizing your personal happiness. Optimism is a state which correlates with but is not identical to happiness. If you are a person who is looking forward to a life "half-full" rather than "half empty," you will have a better chance of obtaining more life satisfaction and enjoyment, more satisfying work and marriage, better health and longevity. Some people are fortunate enough to be born with a sunny disposition and an optimistic outlook on life. Others can learn optimism which can then contribute to a happier and more satisfying lifestyle. Many people think that "the grass is greener" for happy people. Research, however, shows that happy and unhappy people generally have the same number of adverse events in their lives. The difference is in their interpretation of unfortunate life events. Optimistic people are willing and able to make positive life action plans to counteract negative events in their lives, while pessimists are more likely to do nothing, then find themselves sinking into negativism, lethargy, perhaps even depression.

Optimism and pessimism are explanatory styles of thinking about life events which predict a positive vs. negative mood and expansive vs. Inhibited behavior. People with optimistic explanations of life generally feel happier and more energized to cope with obstacles, seeing them as challenges rather than failure experiences. Optimists are more likely to analyze whether setbacks are situational, then are able to develop plans to remove obstacles to their goals. Pessimists are more likely to view life problems as personal failures, blame themselves, feel unhappy and give up trying to change.

Once you understand the psychological underpinnings of life issues, you can then learn how to use this information in your life. You can expand upon helpful characteristics and/or learn to alter and overcome personal negatives. Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism, (Free Press, Second Edition, 1998) describes an action plan for reinforcing optimistic explanations and emotions in order to achieve and maintain a happier and more energized style of living. He describes his own basic personality as a "grouch", but says that he has been able to change his lifestyle to a more optimistic mode of functioning. As a cognitive therapist, he notes that our thoughts can and do control our moods. He observed that optimists explain adverse events in SPECIFIC, TEMPORARY and IMPERSONAL ways, whereas pessimist's explanations of problems are PERVASIVE,PERMANENT and PERSONAL. In other words, when you encounter a problem, if you see it as specific to a certain situation, temporary and thus able to be changed and not related to a personal deficiency, you are more likely to be positively energized and change the problem situation to your advantage. If, however, you see the problem as a pervasive life problem , if you see it as permanent and unchanging, and furthermore if you see it as a personal failure experience, you are much more likely to feel depressed and resign yourself to failure.

How can you change from pessimism to optimism? If you are a pessimist, of course, you feel that you cannot change to become an optimist. You think that you are stuck in passivity and negativism and furthermore you think that you can never change. But you can. As was discussed in the previous two papers, you can change your thinking to control your moods. Likewise, you can also switch to an optimistic style. First, you have to figure out how to dispute your pervasive, permanent and personal explanations of events and change to using specific, temporary explanations of problems unrelated to your personal failures. You can talk yourself through the problem using the steps outlined below. If an additional step is needed, you can use the "best friend" strategy. You can imagine how you would help your best friend change his or her explanation of a life problem, then you can be your own best friend to dispute your pessimistic beliefs. You can also look for evidence or alternative explanations of the situation to help you change your pattern of thinking. You can try on an optimistic point of view to see if it may be more useful to you than a pessimistic way of thinking.

Examples may help you understand how to change from pessimism to optimism. Let's say you are worried about a problem at work and your stress causes you to feel anxious and depressed. The more you think about this problem, the more you worry about losing your job. Anxiety and depression have this tendency to become cyclical and self-perpetuating. In this anxious state, you become even more pessimistic and feel the situation is beyond your control. Now let's try to change your outlook about this problem. The essence of anxiety and pessimism is the perception that the problem is out of your control. First it's important to focus on what factors are possible to control. Rather than worrying about losing your job, think about the specific factors which may be causing the work problem. At this point, your outlook probably fits Seligman's description of pessimism. You may think, for example, "I'm not smart enough" (a personal explanation), "my lack of ability affects all of my job performance" (a pervasive explanation), and "I'll never improve" (a permanent explanation). If you can't immediately think yourself through this pessimism, try the "best friend" technique. If your best friend was down in the dumps about this work problem, how would you help your friend cope? You probably would counter the personal explanation with a situational explanation; for example you might say, "You missed the last two deadlines, but the timelines were really tight and few people could met that goal." You would help your friend see that the problem is not pervasive, but instead situational and likely temporary. You might help your friend focus on good job performances in the past when the deadlines were not as tight. In these ways you would be helping your friend see that the problem is not permanent and change is possible when the situation is analyzed. You might say, " You've done well in the past, but since you had some problem with tight deadlines lately, you can try to make some changes such as organizing ahead of time to meet deadlines or talking to the boss about expanding job timelines." After going through this exercise, then you can be your own best friend and talk yourself through the work issue, ending up with a specific action-oriented problem explanation leading to a positive plan to change the problem in the future. Anxiety and depression can then be put aside more easily so you can focus on the issue at hand and work to resolve the problem.

Let's try another example where an optimistic or pessimistic point of view will make a difference in your life. In this example you have adopted a healthy eating plan to lose weight. One night you succumb to your desires and eat a large piece of chocolate cake. A pessimistic explanation of this event might cause you to feel guilty and depressed and might even cause you to give up your new diet. Your personal pessimistic explanation could be, " Now I've blown it. I have no willpower", while your permanent pessimistic explanation might be, " I'll never be able to keep up a healthy diet." A pervasive pessimistic explanation could add to your misery, " I can' t stay away from any fattening foods. I'll never be able to keep to a diet." Now consider how an optimistic explanatory style could help. Your less personal or situation-specific explanation might be that, " Well, I ate the cake at night. The problem might be the time of day. I need a healthy eating plan for nighttime when I'm less resistant to chocolate cake." Seeing the problem as temporary, you might think, "One piece of chocolate cake is not a relapse. It was only one piece of cake and does not mean that I can't keep away from cake in the future." Instead of settling on a pervasive explanation, the optimistic you might narrow down the problem to chocolate cake only, having confidence in your ability to keep to the diet, just resolving to stay away from certain temptations. If the pessimist in you still wants to see eating the cake as an example of a personal failure, you can dispute the pessimistic thoughts and look at the evidence. "All I've done is eat one piece of cake. Instead of feeling bad about the cake, I should feel good because I followed my healthy eating plan for three days straight." Or you can look at an alternative explanation: "I do have a weakness for chocolate cake, especially at night when I'm tired. So I'm not a failure; all I have to do is figure out a plan to keep the chocolate cake out of my house." You can look at the implications of the adverse event. "The piece of cake is only 200 extra calories. I can make that up easily." Additionally you can look at the usefulness of your explanation. If you keep espousing the failure explanation it will just lead to depression and guilt which will probably lead to more eating. A more useful optimistic explanation could be, " If I think about this as just one piece of cake, I can factor 200 calories easily into my eating plan. If I keep feeling depressed, I'll start eating just to feel better." If you need a little more persuading you can try the "best friend" tactic. Picture your best friend who is feeling depressed because she ate some chocolate cake. What would you tell her? You'd probably take the optimistic approach, making her feel better by describing the problem as a minor transgression, helping her feel good about her dieting accomplishments thus far and strengthening her resolve to get back on her eating plan. So, why not be your own best friend? You can use this reasoning to help put the problem in perspective and move on. Once we start to feel good about ourselves, we are more able to concentrate on positive changes such as healthy eating plans. Once we realize that a lapse does not constitute a relapse, then we realize that we can occasionally make mistakes, take a mistake in stride and still make progress toward our goals.

Seligman began the study of positive psychology after an earlier career studying depression through learned helplessness. He began his study of this phenomenon by comparing the behavior of dogs in two types of shock boxes. When dogs were not allowed to escape from shock, they developed passive, depressed type behaviors and were unable to learn escape responses by themselves in later experiments. The comparison group of dogs experienced the same shock as the helpless dogs but these dogs were able to escape from the shock by jumping out of the box. The experiences of the comparison dogs in these experiments did not predispose them to learned helplessness. Because the first group of dogs experienced the shock as unpredictable and could not escape, they exhibited passive, immobile and fearful responses. When people exhibit this type of learned helplessness, they describe hopeless feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. Further along in his experiments Seligman noticed that a number of dogs never learned this helpless behavior. Some of these dogs seemed to be constitutionally assertive or "optimistic." A goodly number of dogs in this "optimistic" group were obtained from the dog pound, presumably having had to learn coping skills which made them immune to passivity and helplessness. Even in the group of dogs who learned the helpless behavior, this behavior could be unlearned although it took a great deal of effort on the part of the experimenters. Eventually Seligman applied his findings to the psychology of people and developed his understandings of optimism and happiness as antidotes to depression and anxiety.

The examples above were designed to show you the usefulness of the optimistic versus pessimistic explanatory style and illustrate ways you can convert to a more positive way of thinking. The methods and techniques described in the papers in this series will improve your chance of converting from pessimism to optimism. A positive mood of happiness also combats pessimism and makes optimistic thinking more easily available. The cognitive techniques described in these papers can be supplemented with practices to promote good health (adequate nutrition and supplementation, exercise, restful sleep), relaxation (tapes, music, meditation, yoga), a balance of positive activities (beauty, humor, nature, social activities) , spirituality, and other positive influences to contribute to both happiness and optimism. Positive life goals, as long as they are attainable, also create positive anticipation and the sense of purpose in your life.

The books described in these papers, Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism by Seligman, provide constructive suggestions for life change. Another recent book in this field is What Happy People Know by Dan Baker, Rodale Press, 2003. While self-help books provide lots of new ideas, the important and difficult next step is to pick the techniques which pertain to your needs and incorporate these new strategies into your life. That's where assistance from a personal therapist or life coach can help you take the step from book reader to positive change agent for yourself so you can find, incorporate and increase optimism and happiness in your life.

Additional Information on Seligman's System for Optimistic Thinking.

Seligman describes his plan for change to optimism as the ABCDE system. If you are stuck in a pessimistic and anxious state having trouble with an easy conversion from your personal, pervasive and permanent explanations, you can use Seligman's ABCDE system in a more detailed way to change your problem orientation.

In his system, A stands for Adversity, a problem situation where an optimistic point of view becomes important to cope with the adverse event. You may not have realized that you have a choice as to how you think about a problem. Many people aren't aware of their thought patterns or the fact that their pessimistic explanations may have become habitual. When you encounter a problem, do you blame it on yourself and give up, resigned to failure? If so, then you're used to thinking in a pessimistic manner. If, on the other hand, you direct your thoughts to what you can do to analyze or change the problem, then you are more likely to be optimistic.

B stands for Belief, your optimistic or pessimistic beliefs (thoughts) which guide your analysis of the adverse event. You must bring your beliefs about the problem into your awareness so you can determine if you need to change these beliefs. Note that your feeling about a problem is different from your thoughts about the problem. In fact your positive or negative feelings will likely follow your optimistic or pessimistic beliefs.

C stands for Consequence. Your beliefs and interpretations of the problem will lead you to make choices which will determine the consequences of the adverse event for your life. It is helpful to understand that your feelings as well as your responses emanate from your beliefs about the event, not necessarily from the event itself. If you feel like a failure and think about giving up, you are more likely to give up and feel defeated. Your worried and anxious feelings are consequences of your pessimistic beliefs. If, on the other hand, you see yourself as able to challenge and conquer the problem, you will be more likely to do so. If you never try, by definition you will never be successful.

D stands for Dispute your pessimistic beliefs. You can use your cognitive skills to your advantage to change pessimistic thinking.. In other words, you can argue with your pessimistic thoughts. First you have to realize that your beliefs about the problem are pessimistic. Pay attention to your thoughts and beliefs, even write down the negative thoughts to help dispute them. Sometimes just paying attention to habitual thoughts can help you see underlying negative patterns . As mentioned in earlier papers, habitual negative thoughts can be derived from childhood experiences. When the thoughts of this " internal critic" become conscious, they are easier to dispute. D can even stand for Decastrophize. Pessimists are more likely to see adverse events as catastrophic, thus becoming immobilized and depressed. Seligman states that you can look at the evidence which seems to support the pessimistic thinking and then look for alternative explanations. Your thoughts and beliefs are your interpretations of reality and are not necessarily facts. If you look at the adverse situation in its most basic or simple aspects, you may find that your pessimistic thinking is an over-reaction to the problem, perhaps even defeatist or catastrophic. Try to determine the accuracy of the facts related to your beliefs, since pessimistic thinking may be factually incorrect. When you look for alternative explanations, you will realize that events may have many possible causes. As previously stated, pessimistic explanations are personal, permanent and pervasive, while optimistic explanations will be more external, situation-specific and changeable. To choose between alternative explanations, consider the implications of your thinking and look at the usefulness of your explanation. Pessimistic explanations are usually the most negative and are rarely useful in determining a positive plan of action to change the adverse event. If you want to start challenging problems, it will be most useful to pick an alternative explanation to pursue. When you put your mind to determining the most useful, i.e. constructive, explanation of your problem, you will already have begun to free yourself from your pessimistic thinking.

In Seligman's system, E stands for Energize; optimistic explanations do energize you to take action. Whenever you find yourself worried, depressed, possibly angry and stuck in inaction, look to see if you have pessimistic beliefs underlying your passivity and negativism. Then follow the steps to debate the pessimism. While pessimism sets up negative failure loops, optimism leads to positive feedback cycles. As the old saying goes, nothing succeeds like success. You can learn to cope with setbacks as illustrated in the examples above. Instead of giving up, you will charge ahead to challenge and conquer adverse situations.