Optimism or Pessimism is Your Choice

Posted June 10, 2014

What is the difference between someone who is optimistic or pessimistic? It’s your thinking that makes is so. And wrong thinking can lead to wrong feelings. Twenty years ago I wrote my master’s thesis on attribution theory, which basically speaks to how we explain positive and negative events. For example, are you more prideful of an A+ test if the test was easy or you studied hard? And how do you explain your pride? You are more prideful of that A+ because you had a positive event that was internally caused (e.g., your hard work) rather than externally caused (e.g., easy test).

Let’s look at anger. You are angrier at others if the reason for a negative outcome was controllable by them rather than uncontrollable. For example, if someone is 20 minutes late for your meeting, you’ll likely be angrier if the cause was controllable (e.g., the person stopped at Starbucks for a relaxing coffee) rather than uncontrollable (e.g., they had a flat tire).

Now let’s turn to optimism and pessimism. Basically, optimistic people will explain positive events as stable (e.g., I consistently create great outcomes) and permanent (e.g., I’m smart) and negative events as unstable and temporary. Conversely, pessimistic people will explain positive events as unstable (e.g., I was lucky) and temporary (e.g., this will never happen again) and negative events as stable and permanent (e.g., things will never get better). Being optimistic takes some self-examination of the reasons things turned out the way they did. Examine if your attributions are internal or external, controllable or uncontrollable, and if they are temporary or permanent.

As you move through your life, considering your educational progression, your finances, health, relationships, and other meaningful events that have consequences for you, write down how you think about things, and examine the attributions you assign to these events. You’ll see if you choose optimistic thinking, you’ll persist longer in activities than you would have otherwise, and feel better about your life.

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