How Optimism Can Be Learned

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Optimism, it turns out, isn’t just defined as the tendency to expect things to turn out better than probability predicts, nor is pessimism defined only as the tendency to expect things to turn out more poorly. Both terms are also used to describe the way we think about the causes of adversity, pessimism in particular being defined as the tendency to think about them in a way that makes us feel powerless. A pessimistic self-explanatory style, then, describes the tendency to attribute the causes of adversity to forces that are internal (“This is all my fault”), universal (“This affects absolutely everything”), and immutable (“This isn’t changeable”).

Not surprisingly, numerous studies show that possessing such a pessimistic self-explanatory style places us at an extreme disadvantage, mostly by preventing us from responding to adversity in ways that make it easier to surmount. Telling ourselves, for example, that we failed a test because we lack good test-taking skills—meaning that we lack inherent ability—may discourage us from preparing for a makeup test, leading us to fail it again. On the other hand, if we tell ourselves we failed a test because we didn’t study enough—meaning we didn’t make the effort, something over which we have significant control—we’re more likely to redouble our efforts the second time around and pass it. In other words, if we spend our energy defending a rationale for why we can’t do something, we’ll almost certainly not be able to do it. As Richard Bach writes in his book Illusions, “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.”

People with a pessimistic self-explanatory style are also at an increased risk for developing posttraumatic stress and depression when adversity strikes—as well as for losing their motivation when they fail. In one study, psychologist Martin Seligman asked swimmers to swim their best stroke and then told them their times were slightly slower than they actually were. When they swam again, swimmers with an optimistic self-explanatory style swam at approximately the same speed, whereas swimmers with a pessimistic self-explanatory style swam more slowly. When things are going well—when the team on which we’re playing is winning, for example—no difference in motivation or performance exists between optimists and pessimists. But when things aren’t going well—when the team on which we’re playing is losing—pessimists often stop trying.

Or, at least, some do. It turns out that not all pessimists are created equal. Depressive pessimists, research suggests, believe they lack the necessary ability to succeed and therefore that their efforts are irrelevant. Defensive pessimists, on the other hand, worry about negative outcomes as well but use their anxiety to motivate themselves into action. Interestingly, defensive pessimism—acknowledging the possibility of failure without allowing it to discourage us from making the efforts necessary to prevent it—may represent the most adaptive self-explanatory style of all: in one study of female basketball players, subjects identified as defensive pessimists outperformed even optimists.

What explains such a counterintuitive result? One possibility is that a blindly optimistic self-explanatory style might lead to overconfidence and therefore carelessness, an idea supported by the finding in the study above that subjects with an optimistic self-explanatory style garnered more fouls than those with a pessimistic self-explanatory style. Another is that a blindly optimistic self-explanatory style might actually promote a reduction in effort as we might not try as hard if we believe our ability eliminates the need. Finally, a blindly optimistic self-explanatory style might cause us to overlook the true reasons for our performing poorly—for example, because we’re poorly conditioned—and thus prevent us from improving at the same rate as our defensively pessimistic peers.

Given these potential pitfalls, a more constructive approach might be instead to develop what psychologists call explanatory flexibility, a willingness to reformulate how we think about the causes of negative events, abandoning even optimistic narratives when information that contradicts them comes to light. How, then, do we develop such flexibility—a realistic optimistic self-explanatory style—remaining balanced in the way we evaluate the causes of negative life events without surrendering our sense of power and control over them?

If we tend toward a blindly optimistic self-explanatory style, we need to become more aware of the inclination we have to blanket optimistic explanatory biases over all situations equally and acknowledge when the causes of negative events really are outside our control. On the other hand, if we tend toward a depressively pessimistic self-explanatory style, we need to practice refuting self-defeating views. For such practice does indeed work. In one study designed to evaluate the effects of self-administered optimism training, researcher David Fresco and colleagues asked subjects to identify both the best and worst events they experienced over thirty days and to offer explanations for their causes. Half of the subjects were then asked to offer revised explanations. (Hoping to make the training as simple as possible, the researchers asked subjects to look not for more optimistic explanations but merely for alternative ones, presuming that further reflection would yield more optimistic thinking as a natural consequence.) Surprisingly, at first the subjects produced revised explanations that were even more pessimistic than the ones they offered initially. But by the end of the study, apparently with enough repetition, both their initial and revised explanations had become less pessimistic than those of the control group.

But does changing our self-explanatory style actually make a difference in outcomes? The answer, in some contexts at least, is yes. In one study, training male basketball players to attribute positive results—for example, making a free throw—to their ability and negative results to their lack of effort was found to significantly improve their subsequent performance. In another study, optimism training was found to increase the persistence with which novice golfers attempted to improve their game. Thus, how we explain the causes of our problems (like failing to make a putt) almost certainly plays an important role in determining how we respond to them. Which is to say, the stories we tell ourselves about why bad things happen really do affect what happens next.


Note: This post was adapted from my book, The Undefeated Mind. Readers interested in the references that support the principles listed above or in further information about how to apply them are invited to refer to Chapter 4, “Expect Obstacles.”

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  • Insightful, Alex.

    Reading your thoughts regarding the ways different self-explanatory styles affect our approaches to life’s challenges makes it starkly apparent to me that I am most of the time a pessimist. I grew up with a severely depressed mother who died at 54 of cancer. I also had cancer but, alas, am still here. Nevertheless, I believe my mental state, specifically, what I did internally with what happened in my life created the environment inside me to open the door for cancer. My mostly pessimistic state—what has happened is out of my control and I am powerless to change my future—was a lingering state for about 20 years with the result being cancer.

    Now the cancer—and my situation—are changed. Nevertheless, I am deeply aware of my internal state of mind and frequently catch myself in a pessimistic view. I have learned to reflect on my awareness of my state of mind to see if I can come up with alternative views that hold water. Sometimes I can. Sometimes it takes me longer and I wallow in depression. These pessimistic states can be formidable foes for those of us for whom pessimisim is a long-standing and regular self-explanatory style.

    The research you mention has been most encouraging to me as I build my awareness of my ability to approach life differently. I have a big incentive now that the “cancer switch” has been turned on in me. Thank you for your insights.

  • By chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, devotion to the mystic law of cause and effect thru sound, you will become positive. It is the vibration of the Universe and when we align with it, we vibrate at the highest rate. We live in a pulsating, vibrating Universe of advanced harmonics. Everything that exists, including you, is vibration in motion—and all of it is managed by the powerful Law of Attraction. I overcame life threatening paralysis and blindness through chanting and energy work.

  • Great this article gave me a lot of insight in how optimism can be learned. I just finished the book The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. I really enjoyed that book and in conjunction with this article about how happiness can be learned it gave me a better understanding! Thanks a lot!