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Optimism Explained: 5 Steps for Lasting Lifestyle Change

Updated on June 28, 2013

Here's A Test

In the long-term, which future do you think would make you happier?

1) Winning a 314 million dollar lottery


2) Becoming paraplegic

Although the answer seems like a “no-brainer,” the truth might surprise you. Studies have proven, with statistically significant evidence, that exactly one year after either event, lottery winners and paraplegics are EQUALLY HAPPY.

Don’t believe me? Check out the findings of this study:

Everyone Get's The Test Wrong. Why?

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." ~Shakespeare

When given this test, people seem to always mistakenly choose the lottery option due to what psychologists call the impact bias, the tendency for people to overestimate a future event’s impact on their current emotional state.

In fact, many other studies have unequivocally supported the claim that if a major life trauma happened over three months ago, the trauma no longer influences a person’s level of happiness. For a good overview, read the book Stumbling on Happiness.

So, what’s going on here? How do people suffer a traumatic event or financial windfall and return to their previous levels of happiness so quickly?

You Can Synthesize Happiness

In his famous TED talk, the psychologist Dan Gilbert attributes these conclusions to the human brain’s recently developed capacity to simulate experience and synthesize happiness.

He mentions how the human brain has nearly tripled in size in the past 2 million years and, over time, gained new structures such as the frontal lobe and, most importantly, the prefrontal cortex.

The function of this uniquely human segment of the brain is to act as a Psychological Immune System, regulating a complex network of cognitive processes, largely non-conscious, that help people to identify or destroy negative thought patterns and protect or build upon positive belief systems.

In other words, in the same way that physically healthy people have white blood cells, T-cells, and a variety of other biological mechanisms that proactively ward off infections, fight diseases, and perpetuate good health, psychologically healthy people either naturally have or purposefully train their prefrontal cortex to not only identify and eliminate negative beliefs, but to develop and affirm positive beliefs, also.

You must train your mind to resemble Neo, capable of stopping the bullets at will.

The Negative Thought Diet

"A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of opportunities. An optimist is one who makes opportunities out of difficulties." ~Harry S. Truman

Imagine learning the method to utilize this in-built ally effectively, to actually make your mind this powerful.

What’s more, I want you to realize, right now, that if this psychological mechanism is not helping you, it’s actively hurting you by perpetuating limiting/false beliefs.

With the lessons and techniques that you’ll read in this article, I will equip you with an arsenal of strategies that will help you transform your life by altering, through practice and consistent effort, what cognitive psychologist call your Explanatory Style.

I will show you the way to efficiently, and permanently, go on a “negative thought diet.”

Similar to when you cut back on desserts, you’ll have less negative thoughts, less often, and, when they inevitably arise, they will be less intense.

Sound good?

Dan Gilbert's TED Talk

A Groundbreaking Experiment

Before I elaborate on what an “explanatory style” is, I want to rewind the clock to the mid-1960s. At this time, scientists were studying avoidance learning in animals.

In 1967, researchers Maier and Seligman created a two phase experiment (Note: Please try to reserve judgment about the ethics of this study and focus on the lesson).

They split a group of 24 dogs into three groups, an “Escape” group, a “Yoked” group, and a “Normal” group, with 8 dogs in each group.

Only the Escape and Yoked groups experienced the first phase of the experiment. For both groups, each dog was individually placed in a harness with buttons/panels near his head.

About every 90 seconds, the dog would receive one in a series of 64 identical shocks. Whereas the dogs in the Escape group could press any one of the panels to immediately stop the shock, the dogs in the Yoked group could do nothing to stop it.

Before phase two, the differences between the dogs in these two groups were already apparent.

On the one hand, the Escape group dogs learned to escape each shock by making a single, deliberate movement to press a panel. The Yoked dogs, on the other hand, stopped making any attempts to press the panels, or do much of anything, typically after 30 shocks.

The second phase of the experiment consisted of placing the dog in another cage, called a shuttle box, where a warning signal (a light) would precede the onset of an aversive stimulus (a shock) by several seconds. This sequence would reoccur in the same fashion 10 times.

Now, the test animal can either escape the aversive shock by jumping over a hurdle in response to the shock itself, or avoid the shock entirely by performing that same learned behavior in response to the warning signal.

The experiment showed that previous conditioning played a large role in any dog’s ability to even escape the shock.

The Results

Whereas NONE of the Escape group dogs failed to escape the shock on 9 or more of the 10 trials, 12.5% of the Normal dogs and a full 75%, that’s 6 out of 8, of the Yoked dogs failed to escape the shock on 9 or more of the 10 trials.

In scientific terms, these Yoked dogs learned, and eventually accepted, that their behavior and the aversive stimulus were independent.

In other words, these dogs “learned helplessness” by BELIEVING that they had NO CONTROL over whether they would be shocked to begin with or whether they could end the shock once it started happening.

Although this idea might have been true of the experiment’s initial phase, it was a destructive, limiting, and completely false reality in the second.

Put simply: we, as outsiders, can see that the dogs were wrong. In the second phase of the experiment, these helpless dogs, just like any of the other dogs, could have stopped the shock by simply jumping over the hurdle.

(If you want to read the full experiment and description follow this link:

You Are The Dog In The Cage

Unfortunately, the story of these “Yoked” dogs parallels the upbringing and current reality of many adults. Pay attention, this is YOU to some degree.

These “helpless” adults, in phase one, grew up in an environment with unpredictable punishments and abuses. They initially tried to find ways to escape these traumas, but eventually, through experience, they learned and believed that they had no control over whether they would receive abuse or whether they could end the abuse once it started happening.

Then, even when they left their dysfunctional household as an independent adult, they maintained this same helpless frame of mind. They stopped believing that they had the power to escape/solve a negative situation once it arose. They also abandoned the expectation that they could avoid those negative situations altogether.

In reality, these “helpless” people are deluding themselves or, put more politely, intelligently misleading themselves based on experience.

People who believe they are helpless or impotent are, just like everyone else, fully capable of taking control of their lives and jumping over the hurdle to avoid the shock. They just have to change their mind regarding how problems arise and what role their actions/decisions play in solving those problems.

I hope this article reveals the truth of their situation and empowers them to change.

The Three Dimensions of Explanatory Style

Essentially, these misguided people must realize, through training, that they have the power both to escape and avoid their pains. They accomplish this by understanding and gradually changing their “explanatory style.”

When a person encounters pain or problems, their mind, as a survival mechanism, immediately starts to figure out why these negative situations are occurring in order to determine how to escape/avoid them.

In 1978, researchers Martin Seligman, Lyn Abramson, and John Teasadale discovered that these cognitive explanations happen on three dimensions of causal attribution.

As you’re reading this, I challenge you to determine which ways indicate a helpless mentality.

Dimension 1: Expected Duration

The first dimension of a person’s self-explanation is the expected duration of either the negative event itself or its effects. Their brain judges the event on a continuum from temporary to permanent.

Some signs that you view a negative situation as permanent are when you use words like “always” and “never” and when you blame inherent traits or abilities by using “be” verbs (is, am, be, are, was, etc.).

On the other hand, when you view a problem as temporary, you say things like “sometimes” or “lately” and you blame moods or conscious effort.

I’ll never be good at Ping Pong
I’m not good at Ping Pong now, but if I watched some videos and played more often, I bet I’ll be a great player in no time!
I'll hate you forever!
I feel angry when you criticize me
I’m always unlucky
Sometimes I roll the dice badly, I’ll get hot again soon.

The Second Dimension: Pervasiveness

The second dimension deals with the pervasiveness of the negative event.

People can either compartmentalize problems and give them specific causes or they can deduce that one instance of failure indicates a failure in their whole life-strategy, suggesting a universal problem.

All concerts are horrible
This particular band played a horrible concert
Movies are predictable and dumb
This movie is predictable and dumb
I’m unlovable
She doesn’t love me

Dimension 3: Who/What Is To Blame

The third and final dimension deals with who/what is to blame for the negative event.

People can either find an internal cause or an external cause (another person/thing/God) guilty for their present suffering.

It’s all my fault the Bruins lost in the finals. I’m cursed.
The Bruins lost because of how the series played out on the ice
I bring unhappiness with me wherever I go
The people around me are unhappy wherever I go
If I were more attractive, Sarah would have stayed with me
If Sarah were less shallow, we would’ve had a great relationship

The Optimistic Difference

"Optimism is essential to achievement and it is also the foundation of courage and true progress.” ~Nicholas Murray Butler

Can you see how powerful these different interpretations of the same event truly are? Do you feel the difference, even as you’re reading?

In case you couldn’t tell, people who use Permanent-Universal-Internal explanations for negative events are classified as pessimistic. This is the explanatory style for people who experience and perpetuate learned helplessness.

Really quickly, I want to point out that if you apply this same Permanent-Universal-Internal thinking to positive events, your happiness and self-esteem will skyrocket. In other words, the problem is not the style of thinking itself, but rather how/when you apply that type of explanation.

For negative events, your life will dramatically improve if you consciously train yourself to use Temporary-Specific-External explanations.

Are You Optimistic?

Now, let me teach you some scientifically proven strategies to change your explanatory style.

First, it helps to identify what scripts your brain uses now and where you fall on a continuum between pessimistic and optimistic.

Since some more recent studies from Seligman show that your explanatory style is fully formed by third grade, I want you to focus on any childhood losses, traumas, or crises that occurred before you were 10 years old.

Two other factors that will help you identify how you perceive problems are figuring out your mother’s explanatory style (think about it, she was typically the one who had to deal you asking “why?” over and over again as a kid) and remembering the forms of criticism you heard in school. This includes peers AND teachers.

This exercise helps you make sense out of your past, and gives you more control over your present, by drawing lines from how you presently perceive negative events to how authority figures taught you to perceive negative events in your childhood.

How To Change In 5 Steps

The structure of change is easy to follow. Psychologists have developed the clever acronym: “ABCDE.”

1) A = Adverse event or situation

2) B = Beliefs about that event

3) C = Consequences of those beliefs

4) D = Disputation and Distraction

5) E = Energization

Here is your personal, step-by-step, process of how to change:

Step 1: Identify and objectively describe adverse events.

Let me provide you with some straight-forward tasks that will help you with this:

1) Write down what habits or routine patterns of thought you want to rewire and the reason you want to rewire each one (Caution: do not think about what you want them to be yet)

2) Write down all of your worries, stressors, and fears. Do this in a stream-of-conscious manner for at least 20 minutes in order to get under the surface level of negativity.

3) Ask: "When was the last time I felt a strong negative emotion?" Recall the experience in your head.

Step 2: Record your beliefs about these adverse events

1) If you can recall a negative emotion, ask yourself: "What thought or belief did I tell myself after this event happened?"

2) Think of a current challenge. Write down the one aspect of that challenge that most makes you want to give up against this challenge.

Step 3: Determine the consequences of this thought pattern

The crucial part of this step is to realize that feelings are the only consequences.

1) Recall a negative event and examine how you feel when you hear, in your mind, a negative belief relating to this event.

2) When you feel something negative throughout your day, stop and ask yourself these three questions

  1. "What event caused this negative feeling"
  2. "What thought or belief did I tell myself after this event happened?"
  3. "What feeling did I experience as a result of that thought?" (This is the consequence)

Step 4: Dispute your existing belief systems

1) Focus on evidence that contradicts and undermines your current interpretation

Ask the following questions

  1. Is this belief objectively true right now?
  2. Has it always been true in the past?
  3. “What evidence do I have for or against this belief’s truthfulness?”

2) Generate alternative Temporary-Specific-External explanations

  1. What’s another explanation for why the negative event might have happened?
  2. "What’s an explanation that has nothing to do with me?"
  3. Philosophize. Go into the Butterfly Effect to explain, in great detail, why that one bad thing happened. Find a cause that has never happened before nor will again.
  4. What’s a completely irrational explanation? (e.g. You’re a character in a fairy tale)

3) Challenge the implications of the belief

  1. "Even if my belief is correct, what are it's real implications?"
  2. "Are the results as bad as I thought they would be?"
  3. "Am I blowing this out of proportion?"
  4. "How can I get what I want in a different way?"

4) Challenge the usefulness of the belief

  1. Is the situation changeable?
  2. "How can I go about changing it?"

5) Distract yourself

Every time you experience a negative thought, choose one of these responses:

1. Ring a bell

2. Write STOP somewhere (on your hand or an easily-accessible note card) and look at it

3. Wear a rubber band and snap it hard against your wrist while saying “STOP”

Step 5: Pay attention to your energy levels and self-esteem as you dispute the negative beliefs.

Over time, the disputation becomes automatic and effective as your mind links this self-esteem boost and positive neurological chemicals to a more positive explanatory style.

Recap: Three Dimensions

  • Duration
  • Pervasiveness
  • Who/What is to blame

Now, Change!

Your job, right now, is to perform a full ABCDE exercise on one recent negative event in your life.

Additionally, I want you to choose one of the distraction techniques and apply it every day for the next week.

Think of this as a game. You are learning what buttons to press to defeat the bad guys. You are learning how to believe in yourself and accept your potential to stop bullets like Neo.

You are now fully equipped to identify and dispute your negative thoughts. As you feel their emotional pull throughout the day, you will have your distraction tool to help you escape their destructive effects in the moment and your ABC tools to analyze why that negative emotion arose in the first place in order to avoid it in the future.

With this type of power you will quickly transform your brain as you learn, like the dogs, how to jump the hurdle and escape the shock. You will also learn to identify the appropriate warning signals so that you can completely avoid the shocks more and more often.

Think about this: studies show that optimists experience fewer life traumas, maintain better social support, and can even cure themselves of cancer!

Essentially, our beliefs about our happiness and sadness serve as self-fulfilling prophecies, ensuring that we will experience whatever we believe we should experience.

In other words: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t… You’re right.” ~Henry Ford

Enjoy this “Negative thought diet.” You’ll be happier, healthier, and more successful in every aspect of your life!


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    • jabelufiroz profile image


      5 years ago from India

      Optimistic hub. Voted up and useful.


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