In the past 15 years Psychologists have turned their attention to what makes us happy in life. The research is loud and clear, your thinking has a huge impact on this. This post looks at what the research shows is ‘good’ thinking, what is not and shows an easy way to change how you think.
A group of us were discussing the idea of luck during a workshop I was running. One participant piped up, ‘I not one of those lucky ones, I’ve never been lucky and probably never will.’
It was a typical response from someone who has a pessimistic explanatory style. The bad news for this participant is that his thinking makes him right.
When doing research for a book called ‘The Luck Factor’ Richard Wiseman discovered that people who considered themselves lucky in one area of their life, were usually also lucky in other areas. This led him to believe that luck is not something that occurs randomly, but instead it’s something that people create through their thinking.
We’ve all heard the terms optimist and pessimist, but what do they exactly mean? Seligman studied the patterns of thinking of hundreds of individuals and noticed that people could explain events in two different ways.
Imagine you’ve thrown a dinner party and the food you’ve cooked has been exquisite. The night was a roaring success and all the guests told you how much they loved it.
If you’re an optimist you might think something along the lines of, ‘Wow I’m a great host and a great cook. I’m sure this party was the start of many great evenings with my friends. And you know what, I’m sure I can use these same skills to turn that work event I’m planning into a huge success as well.’
In other words you’ve built up the event. You’ve made it permanent (you can repeat it), you’ve made it personal (it was YOUR skills that created the success) and you’ve made it universal (you’ve applied it to other areas of your life). As a result you feel great!
If you’re a pessimist your thinking might be a little different. You might say to yourself, ‘That was a fluke. I’ll never be able to re-create that food. There was something in the air that made everyone have fun’.
In other words, you’ve played down the event. You’ve made it temporary (you cannot repeat it), you’ve made it external (you had nothing to do with the success) and you’ve kept it specific (you haven’t applied it to other areas of your life). Chances are it hasn’t given you the same boost that the optimist got.
What about when something negative happens? This is where it gets even more interesting. Seligman found that in a negative event the exact opposite happens.
Let’s imagine you’ve applied for a job and you’ve just received a rejection letter.
An optimist would think something like, ‘It was only one job, they probably needed different skills. I’m sure I’ll do better in my other applications.’
The pessimist might think, ‘This is a disaster. I’m sure I’ll be rejected in my other applications too. I’m just not good enough.’
This time the optimist has made the event temporary, external and specific, while the pessimist has made it permanent, personal and universal. As a result the optimist might shrug the incident off, while the pessimist might end up feeling very disheartened about it.
When we break down the idea of optimism and pessimism in such a way it becomes much easier to see why research shows that optimists do better at work, live longer and report more fulfilling lives.
If you like the sound of this, here’s what you can do to think more optimistically in life.
When something good happens ask yourself the following questions:
- What part did I play in making this a success?
- How can I apply these skills to other areas of my life?
When something bad happens ask yourself these questions making sure you find reasons to say NO to each question:
- Is this permanent?
- Is this widespread?
- Is this personal?
You might want to follow this line of questioning with:
What specific action can I take to get a better result next time?
Psychologists also recommend that we avoid ‘catastrophising’ negative events. Here are two more questions to help with that.
- Will this matter in 5 years’ time?
- What are the overall consequences? And why are these not as bad as they seem on the surface?
Hope this post helps you think more optimistically about events that happen in your life.
What current event will you apply this strategy to?