Just 49 days ago, we charged optimistically into the New Year, determined to make necessary changes for good. Armed with determination, advice and plans, we were confident that 2013 would be the year we’d reach the goals that would improve our lives.
Where are you today, six weeks down the road into the New Year? It’s estimated that over a third of people who made 2013 resolutions have given up by now. By June, over 60% of 2013 resolutions have been discarded. The reasons why we give up on the resolutions once so meaningful to us would be an interesting topic. But a more interesting topic is not why people give up on goals, but why others keep going.
The reasons why some persevere and others give up are as individual as the people making those choices. But research from Martin E. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania suggests a common trait among those who persevere towards goals. The “keep going” crowd tends to be more optimistic than the “give up” crowd. Some are optimistic by nature, which gives them a useful advantage in many parts of life. But the really good news from Seligman’s research is that we can learn to be optimistic, or at least optimistic enough to achieve our goals.
The Mr. Rodgers Legacy
I blame Mr. Rodgers for the bad rap on optimists. (This may make me the first to blame Mr. Rodgers for anything.) He represents a caricature of those perceived to be ill prepared in the dog eat dog, grind it out world. Mr. Rodgers represents those perceived to be not tough enough, not aggressive enough, not strong enough. We can’t imagine living to his standard of responding to every nasty remark or misguided plan with his neighborly smile and pointing toward the sunny sky. Nor do we want to.
The truth is, I love Mr. Rodgers. But his style of optimism isn’t really what Seligman encourages us to emulate. Seligman was the pioneer in the concepts of learned helplessness and explanatory style. In his words:
Learned helplessness is the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do does not matter. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why things happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness.
Martin Seligman from Learned Optimism
In other words, those who give up too easily (i.e. pessimists) explain to themselves that nothing they can do will change their circumstances, so further effort is futile. If the effort is futile, the logical choice is to give up.
Seligman presents optimism as the opposite reaction to learned helplessness. In his view, it’s not that optimists spend their days in Mr. Rodgers neighborhood where the skies are always bright and sunny. It is that optimists have a different orientation when faced with failure. They think about it differently. They talk about it differently. This orientation makes optimists less likely to quit in the face of challenges.
The Three Keys to Learn Optimism
Of all the contributions Seligman has made to neuroscience and psychology, none may be more important than demonstrating the relationship between how we explain events to ourselves and our outcomes. What we tell ourselves about events matters far more than anyone else’s views, no matter their importance in our lives. We can truly be our own best friends or worst enemies.
If you would like more of a best friend relationship with yourself, start by monitoring the “three P’s” in your thoughts: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization. A description of each, along with what the optimist and pessimist may say to themselves during a challenge, follows.
Permanence: Optimists see events as temporary or situational. Observations such as “sometimes” and “recently” show up when they process disruptive events. Explanations could be: My schedule was out of control this week, but I’ll get back to the gym on Monday or There’s a right time to approach my boss. Today wasn’t the right day. Pessimists explain events as permanent. Words like “always” and ‘never” show up in explanations about why they quit. Explanations might be: I never have any discipline about exercise or My boss always ignores my ideas. After all, if it’s always going to be like this and circumstances are never going to change, why try?
Pervasiveness: Optimists view good events having universal causes and bad events as random occurrences. They believe life is generally good with occasional obstacles. An optimist might explain: The family is doing well. Everyone is adjusting to the new town. Like my team. The new role has a big learning curve, but I’ll get through it. Pessimists view bad events as having universal causes and good events as random occurrences. They tend to expect catastrophes to spread from one part of their lives to another. Explanations might sound like: They must have picked me for this job because they were short-handed. I’ll never fit in here with this team. The family is going to have a tough adjustment, too. Why did I agree to this move?
Personalize: Optimists externalize blame. When things go wrong, they look for what went wrong in the situation, not themselves. You might hear“ It was the wrong time” or The competition won” when optimists explain bad outcomes. Pessimists internalize blame. When things go wrong, they often find some way to blame themselves. “ I should have….”or “ Why did I think I could do this…” may explain mistakes. The continuous self-blame creates a downward spiral in confidence that exacerbates pessimism.
It’s Not too Late for 2013 Resolutions
We still have 303 days left to achieve 2013 goals. There may be good reasons why you need to change a goal, or perhaps you just haven’t started. But if you’ve just quit at the first obstacles, think about why. Can the way you explain the situation to yourself make a difference? Are the obstacles permanent or temporary? Prevalent or situational? Is the barrier about you or other circumstances? The great news is that you only have to answer these questions for yourself. The way you answer may make the difference in giving up or going on.
What do you think? Can you learn optimism by managing your explanations? Do you think this makes a difference in outcomes?
Seligman, M.E.P. (1990,1998, 2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Random House.
If you are a Martin Seligman fan like I am, there is a treasure trove of his work here: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx