ARE YOU AN OPTIMIST OR A PESSIMIST?
It is said that an eastern monarch once charged his wisemen to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and all situations. They presented him with the words: “and this, too, shall pass away. “How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!
~~Attributed to Abraham Lincoln, 16th US president
During the pandemic I’ve been pulling down old books and scanning my margin notes. When I trained in 2002 as an Authentic Happiness Coach (yes, I’m certified!) our core text was Martin Seligman’s breakthrough book, Authentic Happiness.
Seligman, a one-time president of the American Psychological Association, was widely respected for his research into Learned Helplessness; when he reversed to study Learned Optimism, it led to a profound shift in his world view. You might say that Seligman’s “discovery” of optimism as a learnable skill was the genesis of what later became Positive Psychology and the study of Happiness.
As the Pandemic Quarantine goes on (and on and on…) I thought you’d enjoy revisiting Seligman’s two dimensions of optimism that have shaped my own thinking over the years: Permanence and Pervasiveness.
(NOTE: Portions of the following are adapted from Authentic Happiness, Chapter 6)
Permanence: Forever Vs. Temporary
How do you react to bad events in your life? People who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events in their lives are permanent – the bad stuff will always be there. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary.
Examples of Permanent thinking: I never remember dates. I’m never on time. Bosses are incompetent. People in retail are rude.
Examples of Temporary thinking: I was distracted that week. I was slowed by road construction. My boss was in a bad mood. The store was super busy today.
Notice that characterizing things as all/always or none/never comes from a pessimistic point of view. If you think in terms of sometimes/this time or naming short-lived explanations, you may have an optimistic style.
The explanation of good events is the opposite. Those with an optimistic grounding believe good events have permanent causes, whereas pessimists will name transient causes such as unusual circumstances or random good fortune, things that may not be true in the future.
Examples of Permanent thinking: I’m good at math. I’m always lucky. I never have issues when I use that software.
Examples of Temporary thinking: This test was easy. I guess I had a lucky day. The software was working this time.
Pervasiveness: Universal vs. Specific
Permanence is about time, while pervasiveness is about scope.
Consider a common pandemic circumstance. Kim and Chen both worked in the hotel business and lost their positions when the lockdown began. While both were devastated by the loss, they responded differently.
- Kim continued to show up in other areas – as a parent, sibling, partner– as a vibrant and loving person. They used their free time to experiment with new recipes, continued to work out every day, and sought new ways to connect with friends.
- Chen, in contrast, fell apart. They ignored the family, refused to take calls or participate in zoom social events, and spent every day in sullen brooding. They gave up jogging and stopped laughing at jokes. Not surprisingly, they got a cold that has lasted for months.
Some people can put their problems in a box and create the story, “that is awful,” while others catastrophize and let one problem bleed all over everything with the story, “life is awful.”
People like Chen, who make universal explanations for events, behave as though the entire fabric of their life has unraveled. People like Kim, who make specific explanations, may feel helpless in one area of life but understand that a rip in one part of the fabric does not destroy the entire garment.
Personal: Internal vs External Control
I offer one more distinction, often called Locus of Control.
Imagine your life as a ship, floating on the Sea of Life. Do you see yourself as the captain of that ship, up on deck, looking to the horizon and charting your course? Or are you below deck, in the dark, chained to an oar? These are the extremes on the scale of control.
The degree to which you sense your destiny is in the hands of external forces or other people, you may find it harder to accept responsibility or control for anything in your life. Why bother? “They” are in charge, after all. The upside of low locus of control is that nothing is your fault; the downside is that nothing you do will make a difference.
If you believe you control your destiny, you probably find it easier to accept accolades when your efforts create great outcomes and accept responsibility when you fail. The upside of high locus of control is that you can take action to change what’s not working; the downside is that you can’t blame others – the party at fault is the one you see in the mirror!
Increasing Hope and Optimism
Weaving those three sets of distinctions together, I trust you are noticing how you might build or strengthen Hope and Optimism in yourself and others during Pandemic times.
- First, be kind to yourself: to be clear, there is no good/bad or right/wrong here. Most of you, I’m sure, have experienced moments of Zen and periods of uncontrolled grief and panic since all this began. Just notice, and in that awareness look for the places you might change those stories or make different choices.
- Next, examine your stories. Do you focus on everything you have lost and what may never come back, or do you focus on adapting and establishing new norms and patterns in your life? Has the impact of COVID literally shut down your entire life or have you found ways to enjoy what you have instead or even to enrich the areas of your life that were not getting enough of your attention when you were working 12 hours including your commute? When you seek to make things better, are you creating ideas yourself or waiting for a bailout from a company or government agency?
- As you edit your stories, seek permanent and universal causes of good events and assign temporary and specific explanations for your misfortunes, for that is the art of Hope. Then layer on your belief about personal control. Hope partnered with an internal locus of control supports a robust optimism – “things will improve, tomorrow has potential, I can do something!”
- Weave Hope and Optimism into your stories. Hope is the belief that life tomorrow will improve over what it was in the past or today. Optimism means you recognize that good and bad things happen to people, but mostly good things happen to you… and you can influence the occurrence of those good things.
- Experiment with a different focus. If, for you, good things are temporary and specific, bad things are permanent and pervasive, and you believe you have no control…you will benefit greatly from re-reading that Lincoln quote at the start of this article – “this, too, shall pass away.” Notice you are feeling heaviness right now, so try creating and dancing with a story that offers you more possibility. Focus on what you CAN do, what IS possible, and the reality that things ALWAYS change! (Tip: if you’re struggling, reach out to a friend or a coach who will listen and help you with your story edits).
You Get to Write YOUR Story
I close with a reminder about the human condition:
- Everything that happens in the world is neutral – all events are just phenomena.
- We observe and interpret those events through our personal “filters” – values, beliefs, personal history, cultural norms, laws, family and societal norms, etc. – and we sort those events into buckets of Right/Wrong/Positive/Negative.
- We have emotions based on the interpretations or “stories” we create around those events.
- We take action based on our stories and emotions.
This is why you are often baffled by other people’s actions. They. Are. NOT. You.
As the Talmud reminds us, “We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.”
If you want to change the world, tell yourself a different story. Use an optimistic lens, and you’ll enjoy the story more, even if the world does not change!