Becoming an optimist is as easy as ABC

by Jack on September 2010

Even if you’re feeling good now, you might enjoy being happier, wouldn’t you? Although I’m a happy person most of the time – and I’m grateful for that – I wouldn’t mind feeling happier. I really believe that there’s no limit to the amount of happiness that a person might enjoy.

People have known that our thoughts have a great influence on our level of happiness for quite a long time. Wise philosophers talked about this phenomenon hundreds of years ago. Buddha said: “The mind is everything. What you think, you become”. Marcus Aurelius said: “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”.

More recently, an increasing amount of scientific research – by psychologists such as Aaron T. Beck, Martin Seligman, Carol Dweck, and others – has explored the benefits of an optimistic mindset and how it provides tangible results in the areas of mood and well being, health, job performance, sports performance, interpersonal relations and in several other areas. People who think optimistically do better in almost every area – they are more mentally and physically resilient in the face of life’s inevitable ups and downs.

Now, a pessimist would probably respond to this research pretty negatively. Picture a neurotic Woody Allen-style character: “I knew it. There’s no hope for me. The deck’s been stacked against me from the very beginning. I’m doomed to be unhappy, and to have bad health, and unsuccessful relationships during my entire life.” However, it turns out that this kind of exaggerated, negative monologue is the very key to this puzzle.

The term that psychologists use to describe the way you talk to yourself is “explanatory style”. The research on optimism has shown definitively that it’s not what happens to you, but the way that you explain the things that happen to you. Especially important is the explanatory style that you use when you’re trying to make sense of a negative event, a failure, or a setback. These are detailed in Dr. Seligman’s book Learned Optimism and various other sources.

The 3 P’s of pessimistic explanatory style are:

Permanent – the bad situation will last forever.
Pervasive – the bad situation applies across the board, not just in this one instance.
Personal – the bad situation is specifically my fault.

When people regularly explain negative situations in ways that use the 3P’s, then they create a feeling of helplessness in themselves.

Fortunately, a simple process called the “ABCDE method” has been developed to counteract this. You follow the process in alphabetical order when you have an unwanted response to a negative situation. Using this process can actually help you train yourself to think more optimistically over time.

The first three letters, A, B, and C, describe the situation and how you react to it.

Adversity – describe the situation objectively, that is without applying value judgements or discussing how you feel.
Belief – describe what you believed about the situation. Describe what you thought the situation meant about you, not how you felt about it.
Consequences – at this point, you describe what you felt and how you reacted to your feelings (for example, if your unwanted response to this feeling was to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes or eat two pizzas).

The last two letters, D and E, describe a conscious and positive way to talk back to the beliefs and deconstruct them.

Disputation – your rational response (“talking back”) to the irrational beliefs and the feelings that they led to
Energization – the result of your response to your irrational beliefs – the “new consequences” of the situation

If you usually think pessimistically, by practicing this process whenever you encounter a negative situation in your life, you can gradually retrain yourself to respond to these situations with more balanced and useful thoughts. You can change your typical thoughts through this process, and raise your average level of happiness as a result.

Based on the success of this research and these methods, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the answer for finding happiness is not to seek to make your life perfect and free from adversity – something which is impossible. Instead by cultivating an optimistic attitude and habits and by practicing talking back to negative interpretations of events in your life, you can remove self-created barriers to happiness. This enables your underlying happiness to shine through naturally.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nacho Jordi September 15, 2010 at 06:32

Your post comes in perfect time for me because I am currently working on my positive visualizations. I have recently realized (I used to know it, but now it is like I can feel it) that I have this bad habit of not focusing on what I want, but on what I DON’T want, even if it is only to complain about it. I have tried the ABC model with a personal example on the go, as I read your post, and I think it will help me a lot to reinforce my visions. Thank you.

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Jack September 15, 2010 at 10:22

Nacho, thanks for your kind feedback. You’re absolutely right that focusing on what you want rather than what you don’t want is a valuable habit to practice.

I’ve heard it said “what you focus on, increases”. So when you interrupt the process of paying attention to negative interpretations of events, it can help a lot to change your focus.

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