Think about the last time you had a setback. How did you feel? More importantly, how did you interpret what happened?
“This always happens”
“I can’t believe I screwed up again!”
If you’ve ever said these statements to yourself, realize that you’ve handled the setback with pessimism. Research shows that having this pessimistic mindset leads to depression and prolonged periods of unhappiness.
Martin Seligman, the father of “positive psychology” has pioneered a new understanding of optimism. By his definition, an optimistic person is one who interprets setbacks as:
- Specific to a particular situation
- Due to external not internal reasons
Here’s an example. You are asked to put a presentation together for work. It’s really last minute, you haven’t been involved with the project that long and there’s no one around to help you. After getting over your initial ‘shit fit’, you manage to put something together but you know it’s not that great and you’re asked to redo it. If you’re a pessimist, you may interpret the situation as:
- Permanent – “This was just awful. This always happens to me!”
- General – “Ugh…just another example of how I am sucking at work!”
- Internal – “This is my fault. I really should have worked harder.”
Now imagine the opposite. Here’s how you, the optimist, might interpret the situation. You think it’s:
- Temporary – “Okay, this first stab wasn’t great. Normally, I am great at this and I’ll do better next time.”
- Specific to this one time – “This is just one situation that didn’t work out so well.”
- External – “There was nothing wrong with my approach; I wasn’t briefed properly and didn’t have enough time.”
The fact is – what happened cannot be changed. What you do have control over and can change is what happens next.
Choosing to interpret the situation as permanent, general and internal will set you up for a probable repeat of the events and more likely, a downward spiral.
Making the choice to interpret it as temporary, specific and external will help you move on and do better the next time.
So the next time you have an unfavorable event:
- Pause and take a deep breadth
- Grab a pen and piece of paper
- Reinterpret the situation like an optimist…and then…
- MOVE ON.
But why stop here? Let’s take it a step further. Let’s go for AWESOME.
In addition to having the best take on an unfavorable situation, optimists also take full advantage of favorable events. They interpret them as permanent, general and internal (yes…the exact opposite of how they interpret unfavorable events).
So for example, you deliver a kick ass presentation at work. Instead of just feeling relieved – you take full advantage of the situation. You remind yourself that it’s because this is what you always do, this usually happens and you are a fantastic presenter.