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The Importance of Learned Optimism and its effects on your Health and Well-being
by Tony de Gouveia

In the current situation that we live in South Africa, one can be forgiven for swinging from highs to lows in response to the daily news “diet” that we are fed- months long strikes, murders, road deaths, theft, high-jacking etc. As Desmond Tutu used to say we are a “5 minutes to midnight” type of society which inherently tends to pull us towards regular highs and lows. However , despite these environmental forces, there are significant differences in our personal make-up that can make the difference, literally and experientially, between a personal Heaven and Hell. The following example illustrates this point succinctly:
A particular man and a woman may have two very different ways of looking at the world.

Whenever something bad happens to him- a marital squabble, a tax audit, a frown from his boss- he imagines the worst: bankruptcy and jail, divorce and dismissal. He is prone to Depression and has long bouts of listlessness- his health suffers. She, on the other hand, sees bad events in the least threatening light. She sees them(bad events) as temporary and surmountable, challenges to be conquered. After a reversal, she comes back quickly, soon regaining her energy- her health is excellent.

It’s the story of the optimist and the pessimist, traditionally represented by the metaphor of the half –filled glass, with optimists seeing it as half full and pessimists seeing it as half empty. Pessimists characteristically believe that bad events will last a long time, negatively affect everything they do and are their own fault. Optimists confronted with similar situations will react in the opposite way i.e. bad events are temporary, the causes are limited and do not blame themselves-they see it as a challenge and try harder.

But the story doesn’t end there- these two habits of thinking about causes have consequences for both parties. According to Dr Martin
Seligman ex-president of the American Psychological Association (APA) research has shown that pessimists give up more easily and get
depressed more often. Optimists do much better at school/college, work and sport. He suggests that their health is better and that they may even live longer.

So, is the pessimistic attitude that we see around us so deeply rooted that it becomes permanent? According to Seligman we can in fact learn to be optimists, not through mindless techniques or platitudes (positive thinking), but by learning a new set of cognitive thinking skills which will enhance our resilience capabilities.

One of the ways we can do so is to look at what he terms our “explanatory style” . This is your habitual way of explaining to yourself why the bad events/situations/”things” happen in your life. This is more than just the words we use to describe our failures- these are habitual patterns learned in our childhood and adolescence. It stems directly from our view of our place in the world- whether we think we are worthy and deserving or hopeless and worthless. It is the key determinant of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.

There are three critical dimensions to your explanatory style:
1. permanence 2. pervasiveness and 3. personalisation.

1. Permanence
Persons who give up easily believe that the causes of the bad events/ situations/”things” that happen to them are permanent: bad events will persist and always affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe that the causes of bad happenings are temporary.

Permananent (Pessimistic) Temporary (Optimistic)
“Diets never work” “Diets don’t work when you eat out”
“You never talk to me” “You haven’t talked to me lately”

If you generally think about bad things in “always” and “never ” terms, then you have a permanent, pessimistic style. If on the other hand you tend to think in term of “sometimes” and “lately’s”, blame events on transient conditions, then you have an optimistic style(the optimistic style of explaining good events is just the opposite of the pessimistic style of explanation.

2. Pervasiveness
Pervasiveness refers to the scope of the problem. Persons who make universal explanations of their failures give up on everything when failure occurs in one area of their lives. Persons who make specific explanations may feel helpless in one area of their lives but progress in others. An example of this is:

Universal (Pessimistic) Specific (Optimistic)
All teachers are unfair Teacher X is unfair

The optimistic explanatory style for good events is opposite to that for bad events. Optimists believes that bad events have specific causes, while positive events will enhance everything they do.

3. Personalisation
This, the final aspect of explanatory style, is perhaps the most important. It refers to where responsibility and accountability lie for the problems in our lives. When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves(internalise) or we can blame other or our circumstances(externalise). Generally, people who blame themselves all the time(internal style) tend to suffer poor self esteem. It controls how you feel about yourself.

Internal (Low self esteem) External (High self esteem)
“I have no talent at poker” “I have no luck at poker”

The optimistic style of explaining good events is the opposite of that used for bad events- its internal rather than external

External (Pessimistic) Internal (Optimistic)
“A stroke of luck” “I can take advantage of luck”

Given the above explanations, it is hoped that your curiosity would have been prickled sufficiently for you to take the Optimism Test to be found on Clearly if you are a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist you may need the help of a professional Psychologist or Life Coach to assist you in the process of personal change.

Tony de Gouveia is a Clinical Psychologist/Resilience Coach at the Akeso Clinic in Alberton
Tel: (011) 907-2811
Cell: 082 4565046

Born to Shine Magazine - Edition 9 (August 2014 - November 2014)