Cultivating optimism in tough times
Are you a glass half full or half empty person? It is hard to imagine a more difficult time to cultivate optimism. Yet studies have shown that there are numerous benefits to becoming a more optimistic person.
According to research conducted by a team from the University of Kentucky led by Professor Suzanne Segerstrom, there are significant benefits to having a sunny disposition. These advantages include:
- Higher motivation to look after your health and wellbeing
- Stronger levels of resilience to cope with adversity or difficulty
- Greater propensity to bounce back from disappointments or setbacks
- Ability to develop and maintain strong personal and work relationships
- Personal growth through persistence in education and learning new skills
I'd certainly vote to enjoy these benefits. But right now life sucks. It can be hard to maintain positivity and think about a brighter future. I've found it helpful to dip into the deep pool of Positive Psychology research to select practices that anyone can apply.
Positive Psychology is the science of what makes life worth living such as purpose, meaning and the ability to flourish. Dr Martin Seligman, founder of modern Positive Psychology, summaries this as 'the scientific study of what enables individuals and communities to thrive'.
The practice of positivity has seen tremendous growth over the past two decades because it provides an evidence-based blueprint for doing the things that can support wellbeing, even in the toughest of times. A key concept is the ability to cultivate optimism and that is what this article is about.
Psychologist Martin Seligman introduced the concept of learned optimism in 2006. Seligman thinks that the ability to cultivate an optimistic attitude is essential in helping to strengthen mental health and boost wellbeing. His research has led him to believe that anyone can learn how to become more confident about the future. Seligman's approach is known as the ABCDE model of learned optimism.
Let's explores how the model works and what this means at a practical level. According to Seligman's model, here is what ABCDE stands for:
- Adversity is the situation that calls for a response
- Belief is how we interpret the event
- Consequence is the way that we behave, respond, or feel
- Dispute is the effort we expend to argue or dispute the belief
- Energise is the outcome that emerges from trying to challenge our beliefs
Applying the ABCDE Model
The ABCDE technique is straightforward to learn but it does takes practice. Many find it can help move a rigid pessimistic mindset towards a more flexible and hopeful way of thinking. It is worth trying for yourself. Here's how to do it. Pick an example of an adverse event that happened to you recently, something that is now over. Use the ABCDE method to consider the adverse event as not personal, not permanent, and not pervasive. Follow the steps below and consider the questions as you reflect. Write down your thoughts:
A – Adversity. Think about a recent challenge you have faced. It might be something related to your health, your family, your relationships, your work, or any other sort of problem you might experience. What was the situation? Stick to the facts of what happened.
B – Belief. What went through your mind? What feelings did this trigger? What did the adversity mean to you? What beliefs do you hold about the issue or event?
C – Consequence. Describe the consequences for your emotions (how you felt) and behaviour (how you acted/what you did?) Do your beliefs help or hinder you?
D – Dispute. Next review what you have written. Gain perspective by looking at the bigger picture. Who or what else might be involved? Pessimists often take life's challenges personally. This kind of thinking can unleash negative inner talk such as 'It is all my fault,' or 'I am not good enough'. Learn to spot when this happens. Notice the effect it has on you. What might your inner mentor say instead? For example, tell yourself that you now have an opportunity to do things differently and that you can learn from the situation.
E – Energise. Consider how you feel now you have challenged your beliefs. Now focus on what you can do to improve the situation. Think back to a time when you encountered difficulties – what resources, networks and strengths did you tap then which might support you now? What lessons did you learn that have prepared you to deal with the challenges you face today? What is one step you can take that will improve the situation?
Greater optimism helps to build resilience during tough times and also motivates us to pursue beneficial change because it enlarges personal control. Cultivating optimism means choosing the view we take of ourselves, the events that affect us and the extent to which we can influence them. We all encounter setbacks in life. How we respond to them can determine whether we learn from the experience and move on or get stuck in a negative belief that we are somehow deficient.
We are CEOs of our mindset, and therefore, we can choose beliefs that are more useful to us. Learned optimism is not about wishful thinking. Instead, it is a process of adopting practices that support being at your resourceful best.