Each of us encounters what I call everyday misfortune in our lives. These things can range from the car not starting to accidents and illnesses, both large and small, to job or relationship problems.
We each differ in how we respond to these events, and it is just that difference, recently brought forth by Psychologist Martin Seligman, that I would like to examine here.
One of the key elements in understanding why some people respond better than others to everyday misfortune is the concept of explanatory style. By explanatory style, I mean how we come to understand and explain misfortune to ourselves: The answer to the question: Wow! What just hit me? Our explanatory style has three primary dimensions: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. Let’s look first at permanence.
People who give up easily and become discouraged believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent: the bad events will persist. They will always be there to affect their lives. In contrast, their optimistic counterparts believe the causes of bad events are temporary or transient. Compare the following examples:
I never win anything/This just wasn’t my lucky day. You always nag me/You nag me when I don’t keep my word. The boss is a real bastard/The boss is having a bad day.
If you think about bad things in terms such as always and never, as abiding traits, you have a pessimistic explanatory style. If you think of those same events in terms of sometimes and occasionally, if you employ qualifiers and attribute the bad events to transient conditions, you have an optimistic explanatory style. See if you can discern the different styles in the following statements:
Diets never work/It’s difficult to stay on a diet when eating out. Skiing is difficult/The trails were icy today. I’m not a good cook/I had to rush to get that meal together.
Let’s move on to the dimension of pervasiveness. Everyone feels set back by failure at least for a while. Part of the difference between those who bounce back quickly and those who don’t is the level of permanence they attach to the failure. The research indicates that those who explain it as short-lived or temporary bounce back quickly. Those who explain it as permanent or of long standing bounce back more slowly (if at all, depending upon the severity of the misfortune.)
Permanence is about time. Pervasiveness is about space. Some people can put their troubles neatly into a box and go about their lives even when one important aspect of it, their job or their love life, is suffering. Others bleed all over everything. They catastrophize. When one thread of their life snaps, the whole fabric unravels.
The research findings come down to this: people who make universal explanations for their failure give up on everything when failure strikes one part of their lives. People who make specific explanations may struggle with that one area yet continue to function well in the others. Compare the following examples:
I’m a failure/That business venture didn’t work out. I’m unlovable/That guy/gal didn’t love me. I wish I were dead/I need to step back and regroup.
Universal explanations tend to produce debilitating effects in all areas of people’s lives while specific explanations limit the debilitating effect to only the troubled area. It is a matter of avoiding a tendency to catastrophize: taking a misfortune that is happening in one aspect of your life and spreading it to encompass all the other areas. Optimistic people tend to limit the damage to the afflicted area of their lives while pessimistic people tend see their whole lives as being impacted.
The final aspect of explanatory style is personalization. When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves, “internalize” or we can blame other people or circumstances, “externalize.” People who blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem as a consequence. They think they are worthless and unlovable. People who blame external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. On the whole, they like themselves better than people who blame themselves.
Low self-esteem usually results from an internal explanatory style for bad events. Compare the following examples:
I blew it/The breaks went against me. I’m a failure/The timing just wasn’t right. I’m stupid/Those instructions weren’t very clear.
Personalization determines how you feel about yourself. Permanence and pervasiveness, the more important dimensions, impact what you do, how long you are impacted and across how many life situations.
Ideas such as these always fascinate me because of the opportunity they present to each of us to learn to live our lives a little smarter. You consider them, see if they make sense to you, apply them on an experimental basis and see what happens. If at any time it doesn’t seem valid to you, you can discard it. Nothing to lose and everything to gain. Viewed in this light, it seems silly not to experiment a little.
I’m interested in your feedback. Please comment or “Like.”