The Benefits of Optimism
HOW OPTIMISTIC ARE YOU?
Would you like to protect yourself against depression and anxiety? Would you like to be more resilient and optimistic? Would you like to prevent having to Google “therapist near me” when you are depressed or anxious? Speaking as a recovering pessimist, I can assure you that we can become more optimistic and less prone to mood disorders.
THE DOWNSIDE OF PESSIMISM
The cost of negative thinking is likely much greater than we realize because much of it occurs at the edges of awareness or below awareness. We all think a lot more than we perceive ourselves to be.
According to Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, pessimistic thinking is more harmful than realistic or optimistic thinking–and in three ways. First, people who think more pessimistically are much more prone to depression and anxiety. Second, pessimistic people do not do as well in school (think “I don’t test well” as opposed to “I can do well on this test”). Finally, pessimistic people have more physical ailments.
THE THREE DIMENSIONS OF OUR THINKING
We all have developed an explanatory style, which is how we explain good and bad events to ourselves in our thinking. Some people refer to these as ANTs—automatic negative thoughts. There are three dimensions of our inner thinking.
Distortions in these types of thoughts cause a lot of depression and anxiety. Let’s look at how we interpret adverse events first.
ATTRIBUTING PERMANENT CAUSES
If we believe the causes of adverse events to be permanent, then we are more likely to be depressed and anxious. If we think the causes of adverse events are temporary, then we will be less depressed and anxious. Examples of adverse events include a classmate/friend not speaking, a friend not returning a call, or an appliance breaking at home. While these events may seem insignificant, our brain processes thoughts four to five times faster than we talk. Remember, much of our negative thinking occurs at or below our level of awareness.
Envision two children. One child says, “I don’t do well on tests” and the second says “I didn’t do well on that test.” The first child has a permanent explanatory style of thinking and the second has a temporary style. When a child says they don’t test well (and many parents, teachers, and children do say this), it matters whether they believe the condition is permanent or one that can be changed. If someone believes the condition to be permanent (meaning, nothing can be done about it), then s/he is more likely to be depressed or anxious.
Pervasiveness is the second lens through which we should look to analyze our thoughts. While permanence is a function of time, pervasiveness is a function of the spaces or spheres in our lives. If something is pervasive, it will affect many aspects of our lives; pervasive refers to global, not specific. “No one ever speaks to me” is a pervasive explanation; “sometimes people do not speak to me in gym class” is more situational. If we think no one ever speaks to us in any situation (and, again, this thought may be below the surface of our awareness) we are more likely to be depressed or anxious than if we only think it happens in gym class (specific place).
Of the three dimensions of thought, personalization is the most nuanced. Personalization involves whether we see ourselves at blame for the events in life. We need to nuance this term because it’s related to responsibility. Children who blame themselves have an internal style of personalization and children who blame (attribute fault to) others and/or circumstances have an external style of personalization. An internal style of explanation, wherein we constantly see ourselves at fault or as the cause of bad events, can lead to depression, anxiety, and/or guilt. Depressed people are constantly blaming themselves and feeling guilty over things that are not their fault. On the other hand, an external style of explanation, where we see forces outside of ourselves to blame can be interpreted as an unwillingness to take responsibility. We need to find a middle ground.
Let’s clarify this nuance through an example. Say two children’s parents are going through a divorce.
- One sibling explains internally that “it is my fault because so many of their fights are about us” (the kids).
- The other sibling explains externally, “mom and dad fight a lot because they have different views.”
The first explanation results from self-blame and leads to more anxiety and depression. In the second explanation, the other sibling does not blame herself or see herself as the cause of her parents fighting.
To see my blog about Positive Thinking and Covid-19, click here.
So, we have established that we can identify the negative attributions in our thought, but is there anything that can be done about it? In answer to this question, there is good news and bad news. On the bright side, the negative thinking patterns of our children and ourselves can be changed. The bad news (am I only interpreting it as bad?) is that changing our thought patterns requires work. The work is not complicated, but it does require effort. It is like digging a hole—easy to learn, but hard work to break the ground and lift the dirt.
So how do we change our negative thoughts? Stay tuned for next month’s blog!