Previously I talked about how both optimism and pessimism can be useful to you, depending on the circumstances you find yourself in.
But is it really possible to alter the way you see the world quickly and easily?
The answer is yes.
Pessimism and optimism are not a part of your genetic makeup. They are learned responses based on your environment, your family, and your experiences while you were growing up.
And if they are learned responses, then they can be unlearned and relearned.
At the very least it’s possible to adjust your interpretations of events, making them less pessimistic and more optimistic (or the other way around, if that’s what you prefer).
To understand how this can be done, let’s take a look at the dimension of optimism and pessimism called explanatory style.
What’s Your Explanatory Style?
Explanatory style has to do with how we explain and interpret the events of our lives, both good and bad.
(Good events are events that we want to have more of in our lives, while bad events are events that we don’t want to have.)
Optimists believe that the world is fundamentally good and supportive. They view any bad events that take place as one-off aberrations that are limited in scope and that won’t last very long. They also tend not to take bad events personally.
Pessimists, of course, believe the opposite: they see the world as fundamentally hostile to them, and see any good things that happen as one-off aberrations that are limited in scope and that won’t last very long. They also tend to take bad events very personally.
Here’s an illustration: you’re on your way to an interview for your dream job. Your taxi driver gets lost on the way, and when you finally get out of the cab you trip, twist your ankle, and land on your face in a muddy puddle. You arrive late, limping, bruised, and covered in dirt. A couple of days later you receive a call informing you that you haven’t been selected.
A person with a highly pessimistic explanatory style would see this turn of events as evidence that the world hates them. They’ll never get a chance like this again. Their dream is over. Their whole life is ruined now. This is how it has always been and how it will always be, because God hates them. The interviewers hate them. Everyone hates them. They should just die. That would be better.
In contrast, a person with a highly optimistic explanatory style would see these events as just a run of unfortunate bad luck. Happens to everyone once in a while. Not their fault. And hey, anyone who wouldn’t select them just because of unfortunate external circumstances probably isn’t the kind of person worth working for anyway. (At least the company was decent enough to call, though.) That’s okay. Maybe they didn’t get this job, but other great opportunities will come along sooner or later — and when they do, they’ll be better prepared. In the meantime, thankfully they’re not in hospital and they have friends and family who love them. Everything will be fine in time.
Notice the pattern? Let’s break it down.
The Levers of Optimism
Research by the psychologist Martin Seligman indicates that there are 3 major dimensions to optimism and pessimism.
These are the time dimension, the space dimension, and the personal dimension.
We can think of these 3 as levers which we can use to toggle optimistic or pessimistic modes of thinking.
Let’s take them one by one:
Lever #1: Time (Temporary vs Permanent)
Pessimists tend to see bad things as permanent while seeing good things as temporary.
To pessimists, the world is a hostile and unfriendly place, has always been, and will always be. Any good events that happen are viewed as fragile and temporary spots of brightness in a world that is permanently dark and cruel. Opportunities, once missed, will never return. Failure and embarrassment are forever.
In contrast, the optimist views good things as permanent while seeing bad things as temporary. The world is generally good, has always been good, and will always be. Sure, bad things happen once in a while but they’re the exception, not the rule. Everybody gets occasional bad luck, but it never lasts for long.
Therefore, if you needed more resilience (and thus deploy optimism) you would think “Sure, that potential client didn’t want to buy — but there’s always someone who will!” Bad things don’t last for long, while good things are always out there.
Alternatively, if you needed more accuracy in risk management (and thus employ pessimism), you would think “Hmm, Murphy’s Law means shit always happens. I better allocate extra time to ensure all the kids get back on the bus safely and do a head-count before we leave. Kids always delay and will get lost if we don’t double-check. It’s a hard world out there and we need to be extra careful.” In other words, this approach anticipates that bad things are always going to happen.
Lever #2: Space (Specific vs Universal)
The pessimist sees bad things as universal while seeing good things as limited in scope.
What does this mean?
It means that after a failed attempt at a relationship the pessimist says: “All men are assholes. All they only ever want is to take advantage of you. They all just want another notch on their bedposts. They always betray you in the end. None of them are ever willing to understand me. All men are abusive. All of them only want sex, not love. The way society is set up means that this will forever be the case.”
In other words, the pessimist generalizes bad events. One bad relationship means all men are bad. Every single human male in the universe is culpable and evil or tacitly participating in patriarchal power structures to ensure all women are kept down. No exceptions.
At the same time, what happens when the pessimist finds a man who is actually decent and likeable? Since she sees good things as limited, she thinks: “This man is the only decent guy I’ve ever met. I can’t lose him no matter what. Since he’s the only decent single guy out there, every other woman will be trying to steal him away from me. I need to make sure he doesn’t meet anybody else. I have to find ways to check his phone and email to make sure he isn’t seeing anybody else on the side, because all men are like that. I must make him love me no matter how he feels about it, because I’ll never have a chance like this again.”
This kind of extreme pessimism is obviously a self-defeating way of living in the world. And pessimism probably isn’t the emotionally healthiest approach to use in human relationships.
The optimist is the opposite: she sees good things as universal while seeing bad things as limited. So after a bad relationship, she thinks:
“That guy was an asshole, sure. At the very least he wasn’t good for me. But that’s okay. There are billions of men out there in this world, and the vast majority of them are actually decent people. It’s not going to be hard to find another better partner. All I have to do is put myself out there and start looking. I’m not going to let one bad experience get me down. I’m moving on to better things!”
By viewing her bad relationship as an isolated case, the optimist becomes far more likely than the pessimist to recover and to have happier relationships in the future.
Lever #3: Self (Personal vs External)
Pessimists take bad things personally, while seeing good things as the result of external events.
For example: let’s say a pessimist puts $20 in his pants pocket, and it falls out. The pessimist thinks:
“Why was I so dumb? Why was I so careless as to put money in my pocket? I’m useless. Bad things always happen to me. The universe hates me. I was born to be the laughing stock of the universe.”
In other words, the pessimist blames himself for bad things, or see bad things as somehow being deliberately targeted at him.
But what happens when good things happen to the pessimist?
Let’s say he finds $20 on the floor that’s fallen out of someone’s pocket. Here’s what the pessimist thinks:
“Wow, $20! That’s pretty good. You can never predict how luck is going to work out. Based on the laws of probability I guess everyone can get lucky once in a while.”
In other words, the pessimist doesn’t feel responsible at all for the good things that come into his life.
Once again, the optimist is the reverse. The optimist sees bad things as the result of external forces, while interpreting good things as the result of his own abilities.
So when $20 falls out of the optimist’s pocket, he thinks:
“What kind of moron designs pants pockets that are so shallow and loose that money can just fall out of them? I think I’ll switch to another brand!”
And when he finds $20 on the floor, he thinks:
“There we go! Another $20. I’m a pretty lucky guy. No, make that observant. I’m a pretty observant guy. I would never have seen that money if my eyes hadn’t been so sharp. Well done, me.”
In other words, the optimist views bad events as the fault of someone or something outside of himself, while interpreting good things as the natural outcome of his own personal qualities.
And while this can sometimes make the optimist insufferable for those of us on the receiving end, it certainly makes him more able to recover quickly from negative events, and gives him a greater sense of control over his own life.
Summing It All Up
Optimism can make people much more resilient, while pessimism can make them much more careful and realistic.
To toggle between the two, we can use the three levers of Time (temporary vs permanent), Space (specific vs universal), and Self (personal vs external).
To trigger pessimism, see bad things as permanent, pervasive, and personal, while seeing good things as temporary, limited in scope, and the result of external forces.
To trigger optimism, view good things as permanent, pervasive, and personal, while seeing bad things as temporary, limited in scope, and the result of external forces.
Neither optimism nor pessimism is a naturally occurring part of our genetic makeup. The two can be learned, unlearned, and altered as they suits us. You don’t have to stick with one view of the world forever.
And if we’re smart about it, once we’ve got our emotions under control we can intelligently deploy both optimism and pessimism to bring our lives to new levels of growth.