individuals develop the habit of perceiving and interpreting potential
stressors in ways that give their life meaning and a sense of control.
That is, they look for reasons to be happy and satisfied with life,
imperfect as it is. They have become adept at turning lemons into
lemonade and finding the proverbial silver lining in every cloud. There
is a parallel between stress resistance and the quest for happiness.
What makes people happy? Obviously, there is no easy answer to that
question. Does money guarantee happiness? We all know of millionaires
who are miserably unhappy. Does fame or success ensure satisfaction?
What about all the movie stars who loathe their celebrity and yearn for
obscurity? Does beauty make us happy? What about all the beautiful
people who worry that they are appreciated only for their looks? Does
getting a great job mean you will be content? What about all those
stressed-out “success stories”? Clearly, your objective life
circumstances do not define or ensure happiness or lack of stress. This
is determined by your perceptions.
Happy people are
optimists. Optimists tend to have lower stress levels and better coping
skills because of how they perceive the world and their positive
outlook. Optimists are not necessarily unrealistic or unwilling to
accept or face negative circumstances; rather, they choose to focus on
what is right rather than bemoaning all that is wrong. It is a matter of
focus. They look for evidence that life is good and that they are doing
all right. When misfortune strikes, as it does in everyone's life at
some point, optimists recover more quickly because they find lessons in
adversity that continue to give their life meaning. An optimistic world
view naturally incorporates the stress hardiness attitudes of control,
commitment, and challenge. In fact, one could define optimism as habitual reliance on the three C's, combined with positive expectations.
Just as irrational or negative self-statements can create depression,
anxiety, or other negative emotions, positive or optimistic
self-statements can create and reinforce happiness and relaxation.
There is a
whole school of metaphysical thought that presumes that you create your
own reality with your thoughts. If this is indeed true, then by adopting
an optimistic world view you are maximizing your chances for success,
happiness, and getting what you want. What have you got to lose by
trying? Some of you may answer, “If I expect a positive outcome and it
does not happen, then I will be disappointed.” You would be a subscriber
to the “Don't expect anything and you will never be disappointed”
philosophy of life. But if you are really honest with yourself, you will
admit that even if you truly expect nothing, if what you hope for fails
to materialize, you are still disappointed. The problem with expecting
nothing is that you might not do what is necessary to get what you want
in life. There is an old saying: “If you want your ship to come in, you
must go to the dock.” The problem with being a pessimist is that you
might not bother to go to the dock. Optimists go to the dock and find
ways to enjoy their time there whether their ship comes in or not.
When to Be Optimistic
If you are in an achievement situation (a sports
competition, a promotion at work, and so on), you may increase your
chances for success if you are optimistic. If you are concerned about
your feelings (for example, trying to avoid depression or anxiety),
adopting an optimistic framework will help considerably. If you are
concerned about your physical health, by all means use optimism. By the
way, optimism is one of the major emotional factors affecting how long
cancer patients live and whether they survive. If you want to be in a
leadership role, or to influence or inspire others, you will be far more
likely to succeed with an optimistic approach. On the other hand, in
some situations you would be well advised to avoid optimism. If your
goal is to plan for a risky or uncertain future, it is not wise to rely
solely on optimism. This is not to say you should mire yourself in
pessimism, but rather that you need to make a realistic assessment of
the risk of negative contingencies and plan accordingly. If your goal is
to give support or advice to others with a grim future, do not use
optimism initially. It is wiser to begin by being empathic to the
person's situation. However, once you have established rapport it may be
helpful to introduce some optimistic reframes after some time. Dr.
Seligman teaches that the fundamental guideline for when to choose to be
an optimist involves assessing the cost of failure in a particular
situation. If the cost of failure is high for you, then optimism is
definitely the wrong strategy. But if the cost of failure is low (that
is, if all you have to lose is some of your time, or the chance of
suffering some mild embarrassment), then go ahead and be an optimist.
Read the description of each situation and vividly imagine it
happening to you. It is likely that you have not experienced some or
even most of these situations, but that does not matter. If neither
response seems to fit for you, go ahead anyhow and answer either A or B,
choosing the one that seems more likely. You may not like some of the
responses offered, but don't choose what you think you should say or
what would sound right to other people; choose the response that would
be most likely for you.
||You get a flower from a secret admirer.
| ||A.I am a popular person.
| ||B.I am attractive to someone.
||You run for a community office position and you win.
| ||A.I devote a lot of time and energy to campaigning.
| ||B.I work very hard at everything I do.
||You miss an important engagement.
| ||A. Sometimes my memory fails me.
| ||B.I sometimes forget to check my appointment book.
||You fail an important examination.
| ||A.I wasn't as smart as the other people taking the exam.
| ||B.I didn't prepare for it well.
||You prepared a special meal for a friend and he or she barely touched the food
| ||A.I made the meal in a rush.
| ||B.I wasn't a good cook.
||You lose a sporting event for which you have been training for a long time.
| ||A .I'm not good at that sport.
| ||B.I am not very athletic.
||You ask someone out on a date and he or she says no.
| ||A.I was a wreck that day.
| ||B.I got tongue-tied when I asked him or her on the date.
||Your boss gives you too little time in which to finish a project, but you get it done anyway.
| ||A.I am an efficient person.
| ||B.I am good at my job.
||You save a person from choking to death.
| ||A.I know a technique to stop someone from choking.
| ||B.I know what to do in crisis situations.
||Your employer comes to you for advice.
| ||A.I am an expert in the area about which I was asked.
| ||B.I am good at giving useful advice.
||A friend thanks you for helping him or her get through a bad time.
| ||A.I care about people.
| ||B.I enjoy helping him or her through tough times.
||Your doctor tells you that you are in good physical shape.
| ||A.I make sure I exercise frequently.
| ||B.I am very health conscious.
||You win a prestigious award.
| ||A.I was the best employee.
| ||B.I solved an important problem.
||A store won't honor your credit card.
| ||A.I sometimes overestimate how much money I have.
| ||B.I sometimes forget to pay my credit card bill.
||Your stocks are at an all-time low.
| ||A.I didn't know much about the business climate at the time.
| ||B.I made a poor choice of stocks.
||Your romantic partner wants to cool things off for a while.
| ||A.I don't spend enough time with him or her.
| ||B. I'm too self-centered.
If your score is 14 to 16, you are very optimistic.
If your score is 12 to 13, you are moderately optimistic.
If your score is 8 to 11, you vacillate between optimism and pessimism.
If you score is 6 to 7, you are moderately pessimistic.
If your score is below 6, you are very pessimistic.
How to Become an Optimist
Dr. Seligman offers
a variety of suggestions for channeling your thinking in an optimistic
direction. Many of the cognitive techniques for doing this are similar
or identical to the cognitive restructuring methods for defusing
irrational thinking. This is not surprising, because in many instances
pessimism is just one form of irrational thinking. Optimism is not about
being unjustifiably positive about the world, but rather about learning
to challenge negative thinking. Learning to think optimistically
involves learning to dispute pessimistic thoughts. Dr. Seligman
recommends the following four strategies for defusing negativity.
Look for Evidence
convincing way of combating a negative belief is to show that it does
not fit the facts, that it is clearly incorrect. Since pessimism is
usually either an over- reaction or dead wrong, the facts will typically
be on the side of a more optimistic viewpoint. This does not mean that
we are recommending that you blindly repeat positive affirmations to
yourself in the hope that it will somehow change your life. Most
educated people are too scientific-minded or skeptical to blindly
believe a positive affirmation without some confirmation that it could
be true. Just repeating positive thoughts to yourself is not a guarantee
of success or happiness. Rather it is how you deal with your negative
thoughts that determines whether optimism or pessimism will rule. In
general, negative beliefs that accompany or follow adversity are almost
always untrue. For example, let's say you fail an important exam. Common
negative thoughts include assuming you are stupid, or that you can't
cut it in college, or that you are destined to flunk out so why try at
all. This is another example of catastrophizing, of picking the worst
possible alternative from all the possibilities. One of the most
effective techniques is to look for evidence pointing to the distortions
in your catastrophic explanation of events or catastrophic expectations
of what will occur. Evidence to the contrary might include the fact
that you got a B on a test last week, or that failing one test does not
necessarily mean that you will fail every test or flunk out in general.
Our professors in graduate school continually reminded us to never generalize from one piece of data. You could also remind yourself that even smart people can have a bad day and do poorly at times.
Generate Other Alternatives
Most things that happen
in life have multiple causes rather than just one cause; they are a
product of interactions among many factors. It is useful to keep this
truism in mind. Pessimists make a habit of latching onto one cause and
one cause only, and typically it is the worst of all the possible
causes. They usually pick the cause that it is the most permanent, pervasive, and personal.
Challenging this habit typically has reality on its side. To
effectively challenge your negative thoughts, look for all the possible
alternatives. What else could have caused the situation? What else could
happen as a result? Focus on what is changeable, what is specific, and what is nonpersonal.
Returning to our failed-exam example, you could focus on the fact that
you didn't study hard enough (a condition that is changeable), that the
exam was unusually hard (a specific instance that may not repeat in the
future), and that many other students also fared poorly on the exam (a
nonpersonal explanation for your poor grade). You may have to work hard
to generate alternatives, and you may not be thoroughly convinced they
are accurate. But the process of searching for alternatives trains you
to think differently, and often you will come up with an alternative
that makes a lot more sense than your worst-case scenario. But you have
to look for the alternatives to get to that place. Latching onto the
worst possible alternative and stopping there is a sure-fire recipe for
increasing your stress level. Learning to generate alternatives will
help you reduce it.
Realistically Assess the Implications
What do you do if the
facts are not on your side, if your negative belief turns out to be
true? In that case you need to use a technique called decatastrophizing.
Ask yourself what the implications are if your belief is true. Generate
a variety of alternatives. Challenge the most negative alternatives by
asking yourself just how likely those implications really are. For
example, let's say that you haven't just failed an exam, but that you
are actually in danger of flunking out of college altogether. What does
this mean? Is it a catastrophe that guarantees that you will never get a
good job, that you will be a failure in life? Of course not; having a
college degree certainly helps, but with the right attitude and
willingness to do what is necessary, anyone can succeed, even without a
college degree. This is not to say that flunking out is a good thing,
but it is also not the end of the world.
Other people have gone on to success without making it through college.
And you need to remind yourself that flunking out is not a foregone
conclusion. You have some choice in the matter, depending on how
seriously you take your studies from this point forward.
Evaluate the Usefulness of the Belief
Occasionally there are
situations where the consequences of holding a belief are potentially
more problematic than the belief itself, true or not. You need to
evaluate whether the belief is potentially dangerous. For example, if
you truly believe you are stupid, even if you are not a rocket
scientist, the damage to your self-esteem could be heavy. There are
other instances when the best strategy is to distract yourself from a
belief, rather than taking time to challenge it. This is the case when
negative thoughts interfere with your performance, when you are on the
spot to perform now. Engaging in negative thinking or the evaluation of
such is not useful in a situation where you need to perform now.
Distracting yourself and focusing on the task at hand is the most useful