I want to revisit the concept of learned optimism this week, building on what I said in ‘Know Your ABCs‘.
There are people who have literally made the best out of existence in a concentration camp, while there are others who have lives overflowing with blessings yet can find nothing good to say about their situation. There are people who live in miserable conditions, but who even so would consider themselves happy. There are people who in the midst of an abundance of love, health, and opportunities, feel as miserable as the before-mentioned folks should feel.
Why is this so?
Because how you interpret a situation has everything to do with the effect that situation has upon you. Consider the following scenario:
1. You have been working on a business deal for some time, and have put a great deal of time and effort into this. You present it to your potential client, who listens attentively but then tells you that they aren’t willing to put money into it right now.
2. You tell yourself: “I have no ability for this kind of thing. My presentation was horrible as always, I’m just no good at making a sale, and worse yet at creating something of value that people will want to pay for”.
How do you suppose you will feel? I would guess somewhat depressed and demoralized.
Now let’s look at the same scenario, with a different internal dialogue:
1. Same scenario as above.
2. You tell yourself: I’m so disappointed. I know the economy has been slow in the area, and people aren’t paying for the kind of projects I’m offering. Still, I think my presentation skills could use some work, maybe some coaching or doing a program like ‘Toastmasters’ could help. But all in all, I did my best, and for whatever reason, my potential client wasn’t ready to buy right now. Maybe I need to rethink this, maybe there’s a way that I could redesign it given the feedback I just received.”
How do you suppose you will feel now? Probably disappointed, but maybe ready to tackle some of the problems that you now see.
The first internal dialogue focused on elements of your character – unchangeable things, things that are permanent (“horrible, as always”), pervasive (“worse yet at creating something of value that people will want to pay for”), and personal (“I have no ability for this kind of thing, I’m just no good at making a sale”).
The second was not a list of positive affirmations, nor was it a denial of the objectively negative elements of the situation. It was, however, put in hopeful terms that one could grow and learn from. It was changeable (“the economy has been slow in the area”), specific (“I think my presentation skills could use some work, maybe some coaching or doing a program like ‘Toastmasters’ could help”), and impersonal (“my potential client wasn’t ready to buy right now”).
There is no difference in objective reality between these two scenarios. The only difference is in what you said to yourself afterwards. The first example is a pessimistic interpretation that leaves you hopeless and helpless. The second example is an optimistic interpretation that leaves you with some useful and productive action that you can take that may improve your prospects in the future.
Now, you practice a few. I will provide several scenarios, for each one your job is to write down two explanations to yourself that will leave you feeling helpless and hopeless, and two explanations that will leave you feeling more energized and positive.
1) You come home and your wife or husband is obviously annoyed and barely says a word to you for about fifteen minutes.
2) You get pulled over for speeding.
3) You find out that you have exceeded your goals for a work project.
4) You come home and your wife or husband is delighted to see you.
Remember, for a negative event, a pessimistic interpretation is permanent, pervasive, and personal; an optimistic interpretation is changeable, specific, and impersonal. For a positive event you reverse this: an optimistic interpretation of a positive event is permanent, pervasive, and personal; a pessimistic interpretation is changeable, specific, and impersonal.
Once you’ve done this with the above examples, come up with a few more from your own life to play with. After you get the idea, begin practicing optimistic interpretations regularly every day for different situations in your life. You might even play with this together with your spouse, or a friend.
This may not be easy. It may be very, very hard work for you. But the more difficult it is, the more likely it is that you will benefit from practicing this regularly over time. Stay with it, in time it will become more and more automatic. This can make a very real difference in your life – ultimately, it may mean the difference between happiness and depression, whatever your circumstances may be.