What Makes an Optimist?

Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t be harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.

— Marcus Aurelius

Habits are an ancient art. Much of what Greek and Roman Stoics taught some 2,000 years ago, modern-day science now confirms. Marcus Aurelius’s view on how to handle negativity is no exception.

The primary concern of Stoicism is differentiating between what we can and can’t control, and then acting only on what we can influence. Often, this means doing inner work rather than trying to bend the world to our will — and it’s especially important when dealing with adversity.

After three decades of researching both happiness and depression, UPenn psychology professor Martin Seligman wrote a book called Learned Optimism. Its main message is this: How you react to a negative event determines almost entirely how much it will affect you.

That’s similar to what Marcus said: You can’t choose what happens, but you can choose what you feel. That includes everything that happens to you and how you feel about it. Emotions are a choice.

For many of us, this idea sounds new and unfamiliar, maybe even hard to believe — but it’s true. And there’s no better archetype than the optimist to show us how to make the most of it.

When we hear the word ‘optimist,’ we think of someone who always expects the best to happen. According to Seligman, that’s not the case. Surprisingly, being an optimist is mainly rooted in how we approach the negative.

Seligman calls optimism and pessimism explanatory styles — how we explain the bad things that happen in our lives. They differ in three ways:

1. Optimists see problems as temporary, pessimists see them as permanent.

Everything in life changes, and it does so all the time. Pessimists, however, are least likely to acknowledge this fact when it would most help them.

When a pessimist spills their coffee, they’ll say, “I always spill my coffee and ruin my clothes,” thus creating not just a bad association with coffee, but also a self-fulfilling prophecy when they have their next cup.

An optimist, on the other hand, will say, “I spilled my coffee this time, so I’ll have to pay more attention next time.” The optimist is aware that every event stands on its own. Things don’t have to repeat. Instead of creating that expectation, they’ll immediately shift focus to the next chance to do better.

2. Optimists see problems as specific to one situation, pessimists see them as general issues.

Similar to twisting the temporal aspect of negative events, pessimists will also distort what and who is affected by them.

When part of a team where one member won’t deliver their part of the assignment, a pessimist will say, “This team sucks,” and write off the entire unit as lazy and unproductive. An optimist would say, “This person isn’t helpful, but if the rest of the team rallies, we can still deliver great work.”

The implications of this are huge. To the pessimist, putting together this same team at any other occasion is bound to lead to yet another negative result. The optimist will work with whatever they’re given, even if it’s not perfect.

3. Optimists see problems as externally caused where they can, pessimists default into blaming themselves.

There’s a lot in life we don’t control. Other events are the results of our own making. But some live in-between. For that last category, how you choose to attribute them makes all the difference.

Take a divorce, for example. It’s always the outcome of two people’s relationship and communication issues, yet each party will have their own subjective opinion of who’s more at fault.

Without lying or hiding facts, an optimist will choose to focus on their former spouse’s shortcomings to overcome the emotional trauma of the situation. A pessimist is much more likely to double down on whatever mistakes they made, which may result in extended emotional suffering or even depression.

Given the choice, emphasizing “he never wanted kids anyway” over “I never made time for her so she left me” allows you to better deal with a tough situation and move on faster. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it helps you not fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking.

Stacking up these differences makes it easy to see why a pessimist might think the world is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad place: What goes wrong always goes wrong, applies to everything, and, worst of all, is your fault. To an optimist, on the other hand, problems are just temporary setbacks, specific to one situation, and mostly externally caused.

The word “see” highlights one very important aspect of all this: which point of view you take on these issues is a matter of perspective.

So how can we learn to choose the view of the optimist more often?

Long before Seligman dug into the specifics of optimism, Albert Ellis, one of the most influential psychologists in history, developed the ABC model. He used it to help his patients develop more rational, objective beliefs.

  • The A stands for the Activating Event that triggers your inner dialog.
  • The B stands for the Belief that you form as a result of that dialog.
  • The C stands for the Consequences that follow from that belief, namely how it makes you feel.

Let’s say you get an unexpected, urgent assignment at work (A). Depending on the dialog that ensues, you could believe that, “My boss gave this to me because she knows I never say no,” (B1) or, “My boss gave this to me because she knows I can get it done well and on time” (B2). The first belief will make you feel like a pushover (C1), the second like a valued employee (C2). Same activating event, entirely different consequence.

Recording your ABCs for even just a handful of situations each day, for example in a journal, will show you something you might not have considered before: when it comes to your feelings, you have options. By using the model to dispute your irrational beliefs, you get to choose emotional outcomes.

Soon, you’ll spot activating events in real-time and can then select the beliefs that lead to the emotional consequences you desire. The beauty of this model is that it doesn’t depend on the nature of the event: it leads to better consequences in both negative and positive situations.

And that’s what optimists do: they focus on better, not bitter.

Being an optimist comes with many benefits. Studies found it can boost your immune system, even increase the health of cancer patients. What’s more, since they believe their choices will make a difference, optimists are more likely to take good care of their bodies.

In a study Seligman did with Metropolitan, he also showed that optimism in new hires can compensate for an initial lack of skills: what they don’t have, they acquire. The same is true in professional sports, where a team’s outlook on performance shapes much of what they ultimately deliver.

Finally, there’s the obvious, but impossible to neglect idea that adding a rose tint to your glasses will make you happier. It might be just another 2,000-year-old quote, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.

— Marcus Aurelius

Thanks to Brian Pennie and Michael Thompson.

A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.

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Photo credit: Sandy Millar on Unsplash

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