Tags: explanatory style

Optimists of the World…Make Room for Everyone Else!

by Sabina I. Rascol
Published on: August 12, 2011
Categories: Challenges, Other Topics
Comments: No Comments

Dr. Seligman, I owe you an apology. I thought you were one of those positive thinking guys. Instead, you have your Ph.D., Penn professorship, professional colleagues and profuse research all in the science of optimism. You’re not into people merely repeating “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” whether it’s true or not. Rather, you desire to help people change habits of thought that will concretely improve their health, happiness, relationships, work… and even WRITING! For this, I thank you.

At a pivotal meeting in late 2008, the Scrivas discussed personal obstacles to writing. As I remember, these fell into two broad categories that likely all creative types can recognize: 1) life—demanding jobs, young families, lack of time; and 2) doubts about ourselves and our work—showing up in questions such as, “Am I good enough?” “Do I have anything to say?” “Does my work matter?”

Here’s the rub. What we believe affects what we do—or don’t. Aptitude and motivation are not enough, Seligman says. Optimism is also required. “A composer can have all the talent of a Mozart and a passionate desire to succeed, but if he believes he cannot compose music, he will come to nothing. He will not try hard enough. He will give up too soon when the elusive right melody takes too long to materialize. Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure. I believe that optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence.”

People can have general or localized pessimistic tendencies. The good news is that optimism can be learned. As Seligman puts it, it’s not what happens to us (“Adversity”), but how we explain it to ourselves (“Belief”) that matters, affecting how we feel and what we do or don’t do (“Consequences”). Here’s an example. The A is the same in both instances. The differing B is what determines the C, action or lack of it.

Adversity: I feel stuck, I can’t write.
Belief: I’m a terrible person. I can’t ever do anything.
Consequences: Why bother at all? I give up.

Adversity: I feel stuck, I can’t write.
Belief: My goals are unrealistic. I need to come up with more realistic goals.
Consequences: OK, there’s something I can do. Let me revise my goals.

This is merely an amuse gueule to whet your appetite for the multi-course meal of Seligman’s book Learned Optimism. You’ll want to read his full ABCDEs, and learn about permanent, pervasive, and personal explanations (pessimistic), and their optimistic opposites.

For myself, having Learned Optimism, I’m moving on to Authentic Happiness. Yes, that is finally within reach! It’s another Seligman title, now waiting for me on the hold shelf of my library.

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