I have written at length, in other articles on this site, about how those of us who suffered significant and protracted, interpersonal childhood trauma are more likely, on average, to develop mental illness as adults, including clinical depression One of the hallmarks of clinical depression is a deeply entrenched and profound pessimistic outlook – often, this pessimistic outlook takes on the form of what psychologists refer to as a NEGATIVE COGNITIVE TRIAD, which, essentially, means we develop :
1 – a negative view of ourselves (click here to read my article on this: ‘How The Child’s View of Their Own ‘Badness’ is Perpetuated.’)
2 – a negative view of other people
3 – a negative view of the future/world in general
Indeed, when severely depressed, our negative thinking becomes AUTOMATIC, and we tend to view things negatively as almost a reflex reaction. Psychologists call this phenomenon the experiencing of AUTOMATIC NEGATIVE THOUGHTS (ANTs).
DEVELOPING MORE OPTIMISTIC THINKING :
There is a relatively new branch of psychology which is called POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY. Essentially, this area of study examines psychological techniques and strategies we can use to improve our mental well-being and get the most out of life. In this article I will outline the main techniques that this academic discipline advises us to make use of to become more optimistic :
However, the first thing to point out is that thinking in a more optimistic way carries with it several benefits; these include :
– when faced with difficult life problems, optimists are more likely to act and solve them, whilst pessimists tend to feel the situation is utterly hopeless and, therefore, not even attempt to find a solution
– if a problem does not have a complete solution, optimists are more able to adapt to their new life situation and ‘live with it’ with greater equanimity, acceptance and without allowing it to ruin every other aspect of their lives
– optimists experience lower rates of depression and anxiety
– optimists’ physical health is better than that of pessimists: studies show that they have stronger immune systems, lower rates of cardiac problems and even recover from surgery more quickly
– optimists derive more satisfaction and fulfilment from life
– optimists are better at ‘reframing’ negative life events (i.e. seeing them from a new, more positive perspective/interpreting them more positively – or, at least, less negatively).
The psychologist Seligman, an expert on positive psychology, proposes that even extremely pessimistic people can learn how to be more optimistic. He points out that optimists and pessimists have very different EXPLANATORY STYLES (as the term suggests, this simply refers to HOW WE EXPLAIN THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO US IN LIFE TO OURSELVES). Below, I summarize the main differences in explanatory styles between pessimists and optimists :
WHEN NEGATIVE EVENTS OCCUR IN LIFE :
- OPTIMISTS TEND TO ATTRIBUTE THEM TO EXTERNAL, SPECIFIC AND TRANSIENT/TEMPORARY CAUSES
- PESSIMISTS TEND TO ATTRIBUTE THEM TO INTERNAL, PERVASIVE AND PERMANENT CAUSES
HOWEVER, WHEN POSITIVE EVENTS OCCUR THE REVERSE OCCURS (i.e. optimists tend to attribute the positive events to internal, pervasive and permanent causes whilst pessimists tend to attribute their occurrence to external, specific and transient causes).
FOR EXAMPLE, IF AN OPTIMIST PASSES AN EXAM S/HE MAY THINK :
1) I passed because I’m intelligent and worked hard (internal cause)
2) Because I’m intelligent and hard-working, I’ll always pass my exams (permanent cause)
3) My intelligence and hard work mean I’ll be successful in life in general (pervasive cause)
WHEREAS, IF A PESSIMIST PASSES AN EXAM S/HE MAY THINK :
1) I passed only because I was fortunate with the questions (external cause)
2) I, therefore, passed due to luck; I won’t be lucky again (temporary cause)
3) It was just good fortune that most of what I revised coincided with the questions on this one occasion (specific cause)
THE ‘DISPUTING’ STRATEGY :
The term DISPUTING, in this context, is used by psychologists to refer to the strategy of getting into the habit of disputing, or challenging, our negative explanations about the things that happen to us in our lives. This is very important and takes a certain amount of practise because, very often, if we are depressed, our negative thoughts have become automatic, as I stated at the start of this article.
Here is an example of some strategies for disputing our initial pessimistic explanation of a negative event :
1) Ask ourselves what the evidence is that our explanation is true
2) Ask ourselves what the evidence is that our explanation is NOT true
3) Brainstorm as many different, positive explanations as possible (do not over-analyze these new explanations – just jot them down as they occur to you)
4) Now consider the possible effects the event could have on you, including :
a) the worst possible outcome
b) how likely this outcome is to happen (on, say, a scale of 1-10)
c) what action you could take to make the outcome less damaging (damage limitation)
d) consider what the best possible outcome could be
e) given all the above, consider what the most probable outcome will be
BY CONSIDERING ALL THESE DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES, IT IS MORE LIKELY THAT YOUR ANSWER TO (e) WILL BE LESS WORRYING THAN THE INITIAL, AUTOMATIC, NEGATIVE THOUGHTS YOU MAY HAVE HAD ON THE MATTER.
5) Finally, it is important to put together an action plan that covers all contingencies; this plan should state what action you can most helpfully take if :
a) the worst does happen
b) the best happens
c) the most likely outcome happens
This will help you to feel more in control and prepared.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).