Keeping Your Sunny Side Up

Pessimists, don't despair. Optimism--the key to bouncing back from adversity--is a set of thinking skills anyone can learn.

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"Always vs. Not Always": Is the problem permanent or temporary?
When things go wrong, do you believe the problem will last forever and that you can't change it? Or do you believe that the causes are fleeting, or at least something you have control over? Those who believe that latter are more optimistic.

"Everything vs. Not Everything": Is the damage pervasive or limited?
The "everything" people are pessimists. They believe that a problem will spill into every domain of their life and have consequences throughout their world The "not everything" folks (optimists) are good at localizing the specific adversity and containing it.

Research shows that people with a "me, always, everything" mindset tend to blame themselves when things go wrong, think the problem is completely outside their ability to change, is lasting, and will undermine everything they do. Down for the count.

"The nice thing is that those styles are changeable," says Dr. Reivich, who is also coauthor of "The Resilience Factor" (Broadway Books, 2003). "If you're a person who tends to blame yourself when things go wrong, I can teach you some simple cognitive techniques to retrain your mind-not to dismiss your contribution to a problem but to say `I'm also going to look outward at what other factors were involved.' It's a question of seeing the world and yourself as positively as possible, but within the constraints of reality."


Learning the Skills of Optimism
We all have an internal radio station, says Dr. Reivich, that plays nothing but "us" 24-7. We're the announcer and we're the listener. But most of what we say about ourselves is at a low volume. The first step to retraining our minds is to turn up the volume.

  • Step One: Capture what you say. Listen to your internal radio station. Even though you're not aware of it, your thinking style-what you're saying to yourself in the heat of the moment-is having a big effect on your mood and behavior. So listen for recurrent patterns of "me, always, everything."
  • Step Two: Challenge that voice. Pessimists believe with great certainty that the negative way they see the world is correct. So be skeptical and ask if there is another way of seeing this situation that will get you closer to your goals. Just because you're saying it doesn't make it true.
  • Step Three: Generate alternatives. If you're job-hunting and didn't get a call back, you may notice the voice saying, "This proves it! I don't have any skills, no one's going to hire me ever. I might as well give up." These are "me" and "everything" styles of thinking. Instead find one reason that's "not me": "It's a tough job market out there, but I only made ten calls. If I make twenty more calls, I'll see results."
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    Wendy Schuman
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