First things first: when scientists talk about "optimism," they're not saying, "force yourself to be happy." Optimism doesn't mean you have to think everything is super-peachy, or that you can't be realistic (or even cynical!).
Rather, science focuses on "learned optimism," which means teaching yourself to recognize, evaluate, and challenge negative reactions and then build the habit of focusing on positive ones. Optimism is a practice that can help you become happier, but it doesn't force you to be Pollyanna.
The concept of learned optimism was pioneered by psychologist Martin Seligman. We can all build a talent for a more positive "explanatory style"—that is, we can learn to examine our reactions to challenges and setbacks, evaluate them realistically, and focus on more positive emotions, possibilities, and outcomes. Doing this actually helps you be more energized to face and overcome adversity.
"Explanatory style" is what scientists call how we talk to ourselves about the "whys" of a particular event we experience. In any situation, you can have an internal narrative that makes you feel negative (pessimism), or one that helps you feel positive (optimism). The research has defined three components to explanatory style:
Personal: You place yourself as the cause of an event and blame yourself for things happening that maybe, just maybe, you had no had control over. For example, "I missed the traffic light because I'm so slow!" rather than, "That traffic light turned red really quickly." The first is "internal," the second "external." Of course, it's still important to take responsibility for your own actions; just don't feel guilty or defeated about things you had no part in.
Pervasiveness: You can see an event as being universal ("I always do that") or specific ("I did that this one time"). When you give yourself a specific explanation for something happening, it's a lot easier to see how to fix it or prevent it. Seeing things as pervasive is also called catastrophizing—making a catastrophe out of everything. Once you do that, it's easy to give up and lose hope.
Permanence: You imagine that how it is right now is how it will always be—forever. This is the case of, "I didn't get that job, so I'll never work again," versus "I didn't get that job, but maybe the next one will work out." Recognizing that things can and do change is an important part of optimism.
Psychologist Carol Dweck found there was a strong link between the belief that one can change and how persistent one is in the face of adversity. That is, the more one believes one can learn and develop abilities through practice and effort, the more likely one is to face and overcome a challenge, whether it's learning calculus, speaking in front of strangers, or simply getting out of bed.
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson further showed that the positive emotions resulting from learned optimism can enable a "broaden-and-build" process that can helps build resilience in the face of challenge, as well as improves social, mental, and physical abilities. In a state of optimism, we are better able to innovate and come up with new solutions. Negative emotions trigger survival-centric crisis reactions and narrow our focus, Fredrickson found.
Why It Matters
Studies show that learned optimism reduces stress and anxiety, boosts grades or productivity, and improves physical health, careers, and relationships. Possibly even more importantly, learned optimists exhibit increased resilience when faced with challenges and adversities, be they catastrophes or little frustrations we face every day.
Research has also shown that how we explain things to ourselves, even before we're aware we're doing it, can have a profound effect on our ability to move forward in life. Whether we're facing small tasks such as doing our taxes, or life situations such as depression, learning a new set of skills about how to talk to ourselves and training our reactions and perceptions of what might happen can be a powerful tool for motivation, performance, health, and success.
How It Works
In study after study, people who have learned how to recognize, interrupt, and challenge negative feelings and thoughts about a challenge have proved to be more persistent and powerful in facing down that challenge. How you feel and what you do when faced with a challenge isn't a direct result of the challenge itself, but come from what you believe about the challenge.
The basis of the practice of learned optimism is the "ABC model," developed by psychologist Albert Ellis: we encounter Adversity, we react with thoughts that "congeal" into Beliefs, and these beliefs have Consequences. Seligman added D and E to that model: Disputation of negative (and often unsupported) beliefs, and the Energization that results. Energization can take the form of you spending longer on a task, or doing more each day, or simply feeling better.
This can be tricky to learn. It requires us to intercept thoughts as they turn into emotions, which can be a very quick process. That moment when something happens and you feel a jolt of emotion—say, when a car cuts you off in traffic—that's the moment! Training yourself in the individual elements of the process can help you automatically practice a more positive explanatory style.
Adversity: The event. A car cuts you off in traffic when you're already running late or are otherwise stressed.
Belief: The thought that pops into your mind: "What a jerk! He did that intentionally to me! Now I'll be even more late. I can never win, can I?"
Consequence: The result of the negative thought. You're angry, your pulse goes up, your stress levels increase, and you might even be a worse driver for the next few minutes!
These three steps are vital to recognize in your everyday actions and interactions. Once you can do that, in the moment, using the next two steps can help you change the ultimate consequences of that adversity for the better.
Disputation: Question your interpretation of the event. Are there any facts you can point to—past experience, what's around you—that give alternate explanations of why the event occurred? How useful is it to focus on this event right now? Is it really important in the grand scheme of things?
Energization: This is the celebration of breaking the negative emotions and pessimistic explanatory style. You did it! You did something positive, and got yourself out of a negative state. Having a more positive state also opens you up to focus on doing something else.