Explaining your life

- the optimistic or pessimistic way

by Marcus Loane

14th April 2010


Often when we are told to think positively we do not really know what this means or we imagine it means repeating self affirming mantras which we have trouble believing.


A useful concept to understand is that of explanatory style. By this I mean the way we explain to ourselves, the good and bad events in our lives. An example could be something trivial like your boss frowns at you when you go in to work. Different people will have automatic thoughts about this which are part of their explanatory style. If they have a negative explanatory style they might think, "Oh no what have I done wrong? Did I forget to file that report? Am I going to be fired? I am useless at this job." or, "He doesn't like me. I knew it would never work out." Someone with a positive explanatory style might think, "My boss might be having a bad day, perhaps he has troubles at home. I hope he cheers up soon. I wonder can I help."


We can use a positive or negative explanatory style and it is usually so quick and automatic that we think it is inevitable and unchangeable. We think our automatic beliefs about events are absolute truth just because they are our beliefs.


A consistent negative style of explaining events to yourself can eventually lead to passivity, apathy and depression. A positive explanatory style leads to a happier life, more energy and better health. There have been scientific studies which demonstrate this.


There are certain features of a positive and negative style of explaining reality to yourself. These are:


When a bad thing happens,

a negative thinker tends to see it as permanent, pervasive and personal. He/she thinks it will last forever (permanent) "I will never be good at this", affect everything in their life (pervasive) "This will ruin everything", and it is their fault (personal).


When a bad thing happens,

a positive thinker tends to see it as temporary, specific and external. He/she thinks it will not be important forever, it affects only one part of their life and they are not fully to blame.


The opposite happens when a good thing occurs.

When a good thing happens,

a negative thinker tends to think it will not last, it won't make much difference and they do not take credit for it. They interpret it as temporary, specific and external. For example if they do well in an exam they think they were lucky or the exam was easy or they wish they did even better. They will discount their own achievement in some way.


When a good thing happens,

a positive thinker will tend to think that it represents a permanent trend benefiting their lives in many ways and they take some credit for it.


With a will to do it, you can change your explanatory style to a more positive one and there are great benefits, emotionally, in relationships, in work and for your health. All of this has scientific evidence to back it up (read the work of Martin Seligman for references).


We have automatic thoughts when things happen and the process is so quick that we tend to regard these thoughts as absolute truth. If you can start to question your own automatic negative thoughts and come up with believable positive alternatives then you will have a happier experience of living.


There is another alternative to disputing your automatic negative thoughts and that is distraction. With distraction you just change the topic in your head and this is effective as well but perhaps not as long lasting as correcting your thinking.


Obviously not everyone has a consistent negative (pessimistic) or positive (optimistic) explanatory style but will lie somewhere along a scale. If you manage to edge your way along the scale in the more positive direction you will benefit greatly. Try to see bad things as temporary, only affecting one part of your life and the causes as multi-factorial (not your fault). Try to see good things as a thread throughout your life that affects all of it and for which you can take some credit. These ways of thinking are often self-fulfilling.


Once these new habits have been learned and practised there is no turning back. You can be confident that you will never be depressed again and even if life throws you some hard knocks you have a much better chance of working through them using your new thinking skills.



I have written a short follow up to this article.

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