Part 2 Going Through Problems – Optimistic thinking

In our 3part series we were looking at ways of going through problems.
Part 2 is here with us today.
Optimistic thinking
An optimist sees the glass as half full, while the pessimist sees it as half empty. The optimist sees opportunity, where the pessimist sees potential disaster. The optimist enjoys the smooth sailing, as the pessimist sees only a calm before the storm. Which approach has the advantage under stress? “Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist,” says psychologist Martin Seligman(18), “but the optimist weathers them better.”

A long-term research program by Seligman and his associates at the University of Pennsylvania indicates that an optimistic style of thinkinghas health benefits. This approach to life has three general characteristics:

It attributes an unpleasant experience tospecific causes rather than global problems: “I feel fine except for this headache.”It blames problems on externalrather than internal conditions: “I probably got the headache from reading too long without a break; next study session, I’ll remember to stop and stretch every half hour.”It assumes that the causes of pain or illness are unstable or temporary; for example, “I don’t usually have headaches for very long, so I’m sure I’ll feel better soon.”

Seligman believes that an optimistic thinking style can be learned. Specifically, he advises those who feel depressed or helpless to acquire an optimistic outlook by talking to themselves. This self-therapy, says Seligman, should concentrate on the meaning and causes of personal setbacks. For example, if a dieter splurges on a piece of dessert, instead of thinking, “Since I’ve ruined my whole diet, I might as well eat the whole cake!” she or he should think, “Well, I enjoyed that, but I’ll stop with that piece and I know I am strong enough to stick to this diet most of the time.” In essence, Seligman argues that optimism is learned by adopting aconstructive style of thinking, self-assessment and behavioral planning.

psychotherapy technique, known ascognitive restructuring, is based on the constructive reappraisal of stressors. The approach recognizes two especially important factors in determining how people perceive stress: their uncertaintyabout impending events and their sense of control over them. Consequently, two ways people can reduce stress are to reduce their uncertainty about stressful events by finding out as much as they can in advance and to increase their sense of control by learning healthy coping techniques. Cognitive restructuring is especially suitable for people who are having problems with chronic stress.

In general, the work on optimistic thinking and cognitive restructuring attests to the power of the mind to promote health and well-being. When you believe your problems are manageable and controllable, you are more likely to deal with them effectively—which averts the ravages of excessive stress. Consequently, optimistic people have fewer physical symptoms of illness, recover more quickly from certain disorders, are generally healthier and live longer than pessimists do.

You can apply the lesson of reappraisal if, for example, you are worried about giving a speech to a large, forbidding audience. Try imagining your potential critics in some ridiculous situation—say, sitting there in the nude—and they become less intimidating and perhaps more self-conscious than critical. If you are anxious about being shy at a social function you must attend, think about finding someone who is more shy than you and reducing his or her social anxiety by starting a conversation. You can learn to reappraise stressors by engaging the creative skills you already possess and by imagining and planning your life in more positive, constructive ways.

Charles Chambers
Lifestyle & Product Management Consultant
twitter; cc_wahome
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