Test Your Own Optimism
Take as much time as you need to answer each of the questions. On average the test takes about fifteen minutes. There are no right or wrong answers. It is important that you take the test before you read the analysis which follows it, in order to assure that your answers will not be biased. Read the description of each situation and vividly imagine it happening to you. You have probably not experienced some of the situations, but that doesn’t matter. Perhaps neither response will seem to fit; go ahead anyway and circle either A or B, choosing the cause likelier to apply to you. You may not like the way some of the responses sound, but don’t choose what you think you should say or what would sound right to other people; choose the response you’d be likelier to have. Circle only one response for each question. Ignore the letter and number codes for now.
W HEN J 0 H N TE A S D ALE raised his objections after my speech at Oxford, I felt for a moment as if years of work might have been for nothing. I had no way of knowing at the time that the Teasdale challenge would result in the thing I wanted most of all-using our findings to help needful and suffering human beings.
Yes, Teasdale had granted in his rebuttal, two out of three people became helpless. But, he’d stressed, one out of three resisted: No matter what happened to them to make them helpless, they would not give up. It was a paradox, and until it was resolved, my theory could not be taken seriously. Leaving the hall with Teasdale after the address, I asked him if he’d be willing to work with me to see if we could construct an adequate theory. He agreed, and we began meeting regularly.
Who Never Gives Up?
How DO you think about the causes of the misfortunes, small and large, that befall you? Some people, the ones who give up easily, habitually say of their misfortunes: “It’s me, it’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything I do.” Others, those who resist giving in to misfortune, say: “It was just circumstances, it’s going away quickly anyway, and, besides, there’s much more in life.”
Your habitual way of explaining bad events, your explanatory style, is more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought, learned in childhood and adolescence. Your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world-whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. It is the hallmark of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.
The Stuff of Hope
HOPE HAS largely been the province of preachers, of politicians, and of hucksters. The concept of explanatory style brings hope into the laboratory, where scientists can dissect it in order to understand how it works. Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our explanatory style: pervasiveness and permanence. Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope: Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation. On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.
Caveat about Responsibility
An L THO UGH there are clear benefits to learning optimism-there are also dangers. Temporary? Local? That’s fine. I want my depressions to be short and limited. I want to bounce back quickly. But external? Is it right that I should blame others for my failures? Most assuredly we want people to own up to the messes they make, to be responsible for their actions. Certain psychological doctrines have damaged our society by helping to erode personal responsibility: Evil is mislabeled insanity; bad manners are shucked off as neurosis; “successfully treated” patients evade their duty to their families because it does not bring them personal fulfillment. The question is whether or not changing beliefs about failure from internal to external (“It’s not my fault … its bad luck”) will undermine responsibility.
What If You Are a Pessimist?
First, as we will see in the next chapter, you are likely to get depressed easily. Second, you are probably achieving less at work than your talents warrant. Third, your physical health-and your immune function-are probably not what they should be, and this may get even worse as you get older. Finally, life is not as pleasurable as it should be. Pessimistic explanatory style is a misery. If your pessimism score is in the average range, it will not be a problem in ordinary times. But in crisis, in the hard times life deals us all, you will likely pay an unnecessary price. When these events strike, you may find yourself getting more depressed than you should.
If you use the techniques, you will be able to choose to raise your everyday level of optimism. You should find yourself reacting to the normal setbacks of life much more positively and bouncing back from life’s large defeats much more briskly than you did before. You should achieve more on the job, in school, and on the playing field. And in the long run, even your body should serve you better.