Are you an optimist or a pessimist by nature? As I researched for my book The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage As Medicine For The Body, Mind & Soul, whether you're an optimist or a pessimist greatly affects your ability to be brave. It also affects your health. Optimists are 45% less likely to die from any cause than negative thinkers and 77% less likely to die from heart disease.
Because of how pessimists explain negative events to themselves, pessimists may find it much harder to take courageous risks, while optimists find it easier to be brave because they tend to believe things will work out well, even when they're faced with challenges.
Pessimists are predisposed to believe that when bad things happen, it's personal, pervasive and permanent (the 3 P's.) In other words, negative outcomes result from their own failure ("It's all my fault"), apply not just to this specific outcome, but to all outcomes ("I have bad luck with everything"), and last indefinitely ("I'm never going to get a break. Bad luck follows me everywhere.")
Good events, on the other hand, they believe to be just the opposite. Positive outcomes are perceived to be temporary ("I just got lucky this time"), specific ("My luck only applies to this one thing"), and impersonal ("It's not because of anything I did"). Optimists are a whole different breed. They perceive bad events to be temporary, specific, and external, while they believe good events are permanent, pervasive, and stemming from their own competence. This optimistic worldview naturally breeds courage.
You Can Learn Optimism!
If pessimistic beliefs are keeping you from your natural courage, take comfort in the fact that optimism, like courage itself, is something you can cultivate. In his book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., teaches an exercise he calls the "ABC's" — an acronym for Adversity, Belief and Consequences. When you encounter adversity (A), the event becomes a thought, which is quickly translated into a belief (B). These beliefs then affect how you behave, resulting in consequences (C).
By learning to modulate how you translate adversity into belief, you can affect the consequences that arise in the aftermath of an adverse event. When you change your explanatory style, you can convert pessimistic thoughts into optimistic ones, and this can give you more courage.
For example, your boss yells at you at work (Adversity). You get upset and think, "My boss is so ungrateful. She doesn't appreciate me. I never get recognition for my hard work" (Belief). You then snap at your boss and turn in your report late, out of spite (Consequences). Or your new boyfriend cancels a date you've been excited about (Adversity). You tell yourself, "I knew he was too good to be true. He doesn't really care about me" (Belief). You feel hurt, disappointed, angry and depressed all day (Consequences).
Change Your Beliefs, Change Your Life
How you handle adversity is how you handle LIFE. In my book, I share many "Courage-Cultivating Exercises" meant to help you alchemize adversity into fuel for soul growth, and I'm going to share one of these exercises with you. Once you realize that you have the power to change the beliefs that arise in the wake of adversity, you're no longer a victim of your life. You're the co-creator of your life!
For example, when your boss gets upset, instead of taking it personally, assuming it's permanent, and making it pervasive, start to argue with your inner pessimist. Reassure yourself it's specific to this circumstance, temporary and not about you at all. Instead of believing your boss doesn't appreciate you, you can be curious about whether your boss had a rough morning at home and you got inadvertently caught in the crossfire. Instead of taking passive-aggressive action, you can choose to respond with compassion.
Even if your boss doesn't notice, you'll feel better. This doesn't mean you have to get passive or tolerate abuse from your boss. It just means that because you'll feel braver, you might even feel able to confront your boss in a kind manner and initiate a tough conversation. By acknowledging where your boss may be coming from, you can get off the offensive and help your boss avoid getting on the defensive.
If you feel ignored by your boyfriend, instead of assuming your boyfriend doesn't care about you and getting depressed, you can be curious about whether your boyfriend is just busy or needs some space. Find something else fun to do that night in order to lift your spirits.
Courage-Cultivating Exercise: Convert From Pessimism to Optimism
Martin Seligman recommends keeping an ABC diary for a few days to assess the beliefs that arise in the face of adverse events. To do this, you have to pay attention to your internal dialogue and notice the knee-jerk responses that arise when something unwanted happens.
1. Write down the adversity.
2. List the thoughts and beliefs that arise as a result of the adversity.
3. Record the consequences. How did you feel? How did you behave?
4. Review your patterns of belief and how they affect the consequences.
Are you a pessimist or an optimist? After reviewing the beliefs that arise in the face of adversity, pessimists may notice how the beliefs that arise trigger negative emotional states or behaviors, whereas optimists may notice that their beliefs help them overcome adversity quickly.
5. Dispute your pessimistic beliefs.
To do this, you have to learn how to argue with yourself. When adversity happens, notice any pessimistic beliefs that arise, then make a case to prove yourself wrong. If you automatically assume the worst, consider whether there are any other explanations for why adversity happened. Brainstorm other explanations for why your boss got upset or your boyfriend canceled the date. Since you don't know for sure which ones are true, why not choose beliefs that help you feel more courageous and calm? Choose optimistic beliefs instead and notice whether they abort the downward spiral that pessimistic beliefs trigger.
Try it! Next time something happens differently than you hoped, practice your ABCs, and watch yourself get braver. Not only is this medicine for the soul; it will actually increase your life expectancy, help you heal from chronic health conditions, and act as preventive medicine. Plus, remember that we tend to attract what we expect. So start expecting blessings instead of disasters and watch the miracles unfold.
For more tips about transmuting fear, read The Fear Cure or watch my new National Public Television special, "The Fear Cure," Check your local station for listings.