If You Wanna Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life (Part 3): Learn Optimism

This post is way overdue. Writing tends to take the back seat when I’m overwhelmed at work and home. Add the holidays to the equation and I start feeling like that plate spinner on the Johnny Carson show.  I wish I were more organized. I wish I was better at time management and project prioritization.

I try not to dwell on my weaknesses or the negatives of the situation, though.  I have plenty of kick-ass strengths, and stress is not only temporary, it’s often productive. Remember, Dahlings, pressure creates diamonds!

So I’m maintaining my glass-half-full mentality, cutting myself some slack, and moving on.

See what I did there? See how I drew you into my positivity web? I’m like an optimism ninja!

What is Optimism?

According to dictionary.com, optimism is, “a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.”

Optimists are a misunderstood breed, though. They have their heads in the clouds. They see the world through rose-colored glasses. They’re idealistic dreamers.

I call bullshit.

ID-10076986Look, I’m not talking about blind optimism here. I’m not suggesting you stick your head in the sand or ignore problems. What I am suggesting is balance. What I’m talking about is intelligent optimism grounded in realism.

Are You a Life Vacuum?

Back in 2004, Rachel Dratch created this brilliant character for Saturday Night Live called Debbie Downer.  Debbie would interrupt every conversation with negative comments or bad news, then look into the camera while a “wah-wah” played in the background.

The skits were – are – hilarious because they’re so true. We all have a few Debbies in our life. You know, those people who act like being negative is their job. I call them life vacuums. They walk into a room and suck the life right out of it.

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, identified three major attitudes that characterize how pessimists explain negative events or circumstances. They’re called the 3Ps:

  1. Permanence: How long will this problem (or success) last? Diets never work. Acing that interview was just a fluke.
  2. Pervasiveness: How much of my life does this problem affect? Great, a flat tire. My life sucks. (Or, for you Gen Y-ers, #FML).    
  3. Personalizing: Who caused the problem? This is all my fault. I’m so stupid.

How to Unlearn Your Pessimistic Tendencies

Even predominantly optimistic gals like me can find themselves falling into the pits of woe-is-me despair every now and again. But, contrary to popular belief, optimism can be learned. The next time you find yourself heading down the path of pessimism, try this five-step process – Seligman called it the ABCDE method – to gain a more optimistic perspective on the situation.

A = Adversity (or Activating Event) What was the initial event or situation that went wrong? What triggered your reaction? My big presentation at work didn’t go the way I’d hoped. There were a few technical issues and I went over my allotted time.

B = Belief System What is your interpretation of the situation? What is the story you’re telling yourself about the event and the meaning behind it? That was horrible. I made a fool of myself. My boss is gonna be so disappointed. A few people told me I did a great job – but they were just being nice. I might as well update my resume now.

C = Consequences Based on your belief system, how did you act or behave? How did you feel? I was so embarrassed; I went straight to my office, shut the door, and stayed there for the rest of the day. I’m never speaking in public again. 

D = Dispute Interrupt your habitual thought pattern and debate yourself. What are other possible arguments against your beliefs, the causes of the event, or the implications of the situation? What would you say to someone else in your situation? Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I had a few technical issues but everyone laughed when I made a joke about hating technology. The content was solid and the stakeholders asked several good questions at the end.

E = Energization What is the result of completing the previous steps of the process? How has your energy changed due to challenging your own negative beliefs…and then letting go?

There you have it. A simple process to follow the next time things go sideways and you start channeling your inner Debbie Downer. Once you’ve tried it a few times, the ABCDE method will become second nature and you’ll be on your way to a happier you.

Next time: How interpersonal relationships impact happiness.

Disclaimer: The previous ABCDE example is fictional and does not depict any actual person (…ahem…blogger) or event.