Have you ever noticed when one thing goes wrong, everything starts to go wrong? It’s almost as though there is a centipede following you and he just keeps dropping all of those proverbial other shoes. It can be even more difficult to stay positive when external influences seem to be working against you. You know those external influences–things that are seemingly out of your control but can have a tremendous effect on you both physically and mentally. In fact, sometimes this world can be overwhelming as the slow drip of bad news erodes any sense of optimism you possess.
I don’t think anyone can argue this is time of tumult and upheaval. Things are changing rapidly and change is hard–whether it is for the good or the bad. Oftentimes change can leave us paralyzed with a sense of fear and inadequacy. That fear leads a downward negative spiral. Rather than believing in the positive outcomes that are possible, we focus on negative probabilities. We didn’t get that promotion because we aren’t good enough. There will never be another chance at a promotion. We are stuck where we are and nothing we try to do will change it. In a sense, we create our own self-fulfilling prophesy.
But what if you don’t want to lose your sense of optimism? I have to admit I am not the optimistic guy by nature. In fact, I spent a good deal of my life as a pessimist. I was constantly amazed by friends who saw the bright side in every situation and believe the best in people. However, at one point I realized my cynical disposition was doing me no good, nor was it helping people around me. I decided I need to change my attitude and thankfully, I discovered that optimism is a trait that can be developed.
In his book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman discusses the importance of an optimistic nature for a flourishing life. He points out that optimism is not necessarily the default characteristic for human nature, but those who are optimistic have a greater sense of over overall happiness and a better quality of life. Seligman pinpoints three key differences in perspective between optimists and pessimists. These are known as the 3 P’s–Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization. Let’s take a look at how these principles can alter your outlook.
We all engage in self-talk. Optimists tend to have positive self-talk while pessimists engage in more negative self-talk. If you want to build a more positive outlook, see how you deal with the 3 P’s when chatting in your head.
Permanence–When something happens to us, we can choose to believe that the event and it’s causes are permanent or temporary. You guessed it. Optimists tend to believe good things and their cause are permanent while bad things and those causes are temporary. Pessimists believe just the opposite. For example, If an optimist gets a promotion, she says to herself, “I got that promotion because I’m good at what I do and I will continue to get good feedback and promotions in the future.” The pessimist might say to himself, “I don’t know why I got that promotion. I must have fooled them this time but I won’t be able to keep it up in the long run. This is probably my last promotion.” You can see the difference in the two outlooks.
Pervasiveness–Optimists see good things as pervasive, or all-encompassing, and view bad things as confined to one area. Using the promotion example, they may say to themselves they got the job because they are good at all sorts of skills in a variety of areas. If they encounter a problem or set-back, they see that as more of a specific issue. They may say they didn’t get the job because their skill-set wasn’t strong in one area, but that doesn’t preclude them from using other skill-sets to get a future promotion. Pessimists, of course, flip that mindset.
Personalization–Also known as taking responsibility for outcomes. As you might expect, optimists tend to take credit for positive events or outcomes but don’t shoulder the responsibility for bad events. Pessimists, again, do just the opposite.
The 3 P’s are a good foundation to use when analyzing your self-talk. Are you higher on the negative or positive scale? Once you determine that, you can begin to change the way your inner dialogues unwind. Take responsibility for the good things and recognize your positive qualities have more power than you realize. If you are in a bad situation, admit that it won’t last forever, and it will not always be this way.
In addition to the 3 P’s, I would include an additional skill-set I have found very helpful in turning around my attitude. That skill-set involves harnessing the power of reflection. If something didn’t go the way I wanted, rather than accepting it as a given I began to question what I could learn from the situation. What went wrong, and could I have done anything to prevent or change the outcome? If the answer is no, it was out of my control. More powerful though–if the answer was yes, what could I do to change future outcomes?
Using all of these techniques, I was able to change my view from pessimist to optimist. Was it easy? No, it wasn’t. Am I finished? No, it’s a continual challenge. I guess you could say I am a recovering pessimist but I am so glad I decided to make the change.
If you are having trouble staying positive in today’s world, you might want to give the 3 P’s a try. After all, what have you got to lose except a feeling of despair, being overwhelmed, and a sense that you are not in control of your own destiny.