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The Power Of Explanatory Styles: Optimism vs Pessimism

Brian Johnson
Written by Brian Johnson

From Martin Seligman’s perspective, optimism is not about whistling happy tunes to ourselves when life gets challenging. It’s about disciplining our minds to create more empowering explanations of what’s going on.

Whether we’re optimists or pessimists comes down to what he calls our "explanatory styles"—how we explain what’s happening in our world. Specifically, in this model, it comes down to three P’s: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization.

How our explanatory styles decide our outlook

Imagine something good happens at work—let’s say you get a promotion or land a big client or whatever qualifies as positive in your business world. How would you explain it? Let’s look at it through the 3 P’s.

  • If you’re a pessimist, you think the good fortune won’t last (Permanence), it doesn’t apply to the rest of your life (Pervasiveness) and it’s because you got lucky (Personalization).
  • If you’re an optimist, you’ll tend to see it the other way around: the good fortune will probably last, it’s just another example of how everything’s awesome in your life and it’s probably the result of all the diligent, patient, persistent and playful hard work you’ve put in for quite a while.

Interesting, eh? Now, let’s look at a negative event—let’s say you get laid off or lose a big client or whatever. How do you explain it to yourself?

  • The pessimist, although convinced the positive stuff won’t last, thinks the negative will last forever. And, although the positive event wasn’t pervasive, the negative event is. And, although you wouldn’t take any credit for the positive event, the negative event is totally your fault. D’oh.
  • On the other hand, the optimist looks at the negative event and believes it’s just a temporary set-back (Permanence), is just one part of your life that’s not as great as it could be (Pervasiveness) and partly due to a poor economy so no need to take it all Personally.

Explanatory styles. Powerful stuff. Check in on the good and "bad" stuff in your life. How are you interpreting them? Do you tend to have an optimistic or a pessimistic explanatory style?!

The exciting news is that mastering our explanatory styles (like anything else) just takes practice. Next time you feel yourself getting swept away by a negative event or not fully appreciating a positive one, see if you can fine tune your P’s, please.

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