While it’s true that an optimistic outlook can improve longevity and overall health, it isn’t always easy to keep on the sunny side of life. According to happiness expert and leading psychologist Martin P. Seligman, a person’s viewpoint all comes down to their explanatory style—the story they tell themselves when things don’t go their way.
Pessimists often view good things as temporary, infrequent, and random, while viewing negative events as permanent, universal, and their own fault. In other words, the rules that pessimists apply to negative events do not apply to those that are positive. Fortunately, that inconsistency can be challenged and changed.
Think back to a time when something didn’t seem to go your way. Maybe you didn’t get that big hit in the 8th inning, or maybe you missed that tackle in the 4th quarter. What’s the story you told yourself to explain why this negative event occurred?
Now, ask yourself:
- Did this bad event last forever?
- Was it a sign that "everything was falling apart"?
- Was it entirely my fault?
Now, imagine a future challenge. Consider how you might identify and challenge your negative thoughts and experiment with a new explanatory style. Instead of seeing negative events as permanent, challenge your assumptions:
- Are you absolutely sure this is true?
- Is it possible that this particularly difficult situation is temporary?
- Are you truly responsible for all aspects of this situation?
Remember that all-or-nothing thinking is a common cognitive distortion. When you notice you’re viewing "everything" as bad, challenge yourself to come up with a few positive exceptions. Personalization is another common cognitive distortion. Most situations have multiple causes, and it’s very unlikely that you, or anyone for that matter, are entirely at fault.
Don’t worry if optimism feels difficult or elusive at the moment, the more you practice optimism, the more easily it will come to you. Over time, your practice will shift so that optimism becomes your automatic, go-to response when times get tough.