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Action 33

Be realistic in your reasoning

We often find thoughts like these going around in our heads: "The buses are always late" or "She must be annoyed with me" or "I'll never be any good at my job". Well science has shown that the beliefs we have about why things happen to us can affect our happiness and our health. [1][2] But the good news is that we can learn to challenge this negative self-talk.

Why do it?

Martin Seligman and his colleagues have shown that the way we see the causes of events that happen in our lives has a big impact on our well-being. When bad things happen, if we have an 'optimistic explanatory style' we're less likely to give up easily, more resilient to depression, more likely to perform better at challenging work and have better physical health than people with a more 'pessimistic explanatory style'. [1][2] This isn't because fewer bad things happen to us, but the way we explain these things to ourselves is different.

When things go wrong, if we have a pessimistic style we see it as all our own fault (me); that things like this will always go wrong and never be any different (always); and that its not just in this one area or part of our lives that this thing goes wrong, but the other parts too (everything).

On the other hand, if we have an optimistic style we tend to think that the reasons were outside of ourselves (not me); that the problem was just limited to now (not always); and only affect the one area that the problem occurred in (not everything). [2]

It isn't a question of being blindly optimistic in our explanations or failing to see how we contribute to problems. It's about becoming more aware of our natural style and being able to challenge ourselves if our explanations are unhelpful. A pessimistic style can be as unrealistic as an overly optimistic one and it certainly doesn't help us to be happy. So it's about being a realistic optimist. Find out how below.

Optimistic and pessimistic styles

Let's look at three examples of everyday things that happen and see how we might explain it to ourselves using either an optimistic or pessimistic style:

Example 1: A friend doesn't call. Here the optimistic style might say: "She must be busy" whereas the pessimistic style might assume: "She must be annoyed with me".

Example 2: The bus is late. Here the optimistic style might say: "The bad weather must be causing problems" whereas the pessimistic style might conclude: "Buses are always late".

Example 3: You get something wrong at work. Here the optimistic style might say: "I struggle with doing that stock report" whereas the pessimistic style might decide: "I'll never be any good at my job".

Where to start

Step 1: Catch yourself. Next time something bad happens - What are your first thoughts about why it happened? What do you say to yourself?

Step2: Challenge yourself. Answer the following questions:

  • Was it me or not me? How might others or circumstances have contributed? How did I contribute?
  • Was it always or not always? What might be the reasons this happened this time specifically? What is the evidence that it happened at other times? When didn't it happen?
  • Was it everything or not everything? What is the evidence that it happened in other areas of my life? In what areas of my life doesn't it happen?

Step 3: Get accurate. What are more likely explanations of why this thing happened?

Step 4: Get on. Now is there anything within your control that you could usefully do or change to move forward?

References

[1] Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness. London: Nicholas Brealey

[2] Revich, K., & Shatté. (2003). The Resilience Factor. New York: Broadway Books

Resources

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Optimism helps us achieve our goals

Research shows that people who are optimistic tend to be happier, healthier and cope better in tough times.

"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined"
- Henry David Thoreau