The Way We Explain Things
Our explanatory style determines our optimistic or pessimistic perspective.
Posted Apr 01, 2011
We learn to explain the things that happen to us in this world primarily by listening to and observing how others explain the world. Our "explanatory style," as Marty Seligman, Ph.D. has labeled it, can determine whether our perspective is one of being an optimist or a pessimist. If we assume that both good and bad events are permanent, we are more likely to react with dejection and depression, especially when the good things go south.
On the other hand, if we assume that both good and bad events are temporary, that all things will pass, we are more likely to feel optimistic and positive about our world. If we assume that one good event or bad event can make everything good or bad, we again are more likely to feel dejected and depressed, especially when the one good event, e.g., getting the promotion or the new job, doesn't make everything in your life better. However, if we keep a healthy perspective, we assume that both good and bad events have a specific impact on our lives but do not change everything, we are more likely to be optimistic regarding the present and the future.
And last of all, if we assume when bad things happen that somebody must be blamed, that "somebody" may be ourselves. At the least, we may waste considerable time and attention trying to determine who caused the problem. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't be accountable for what we do or that we shouldn't hold other people accountable for their actions. Blaming is accountability, but with a huge dose of negative emotion attached to it. Negative emotion is seldom helpful in managing or dealing with difficult situations.
Permanence, pervasiveness, and personal blame are three thinking patterns that in general do not work well for us, especially in difficult situations. A couple of other patterns of faulty thinking are "conformation bias," accepting only information and data that support your current beliefs. "Don't bother me with the facts." And dichotomous thinking, e.g., all or none thinking in which events are either black or white. These are faulty thinking patterns that we can change. They are thinking traps that can undermine our resilience.
For more information about Dr. Seligman's work with the military see the January 2010 issue of the American Psychologist.