Cup or Cuppa: You Decide if it's Half-Full

First, some sciency stuff on it (taken from my thesis):

Views on Optimism and Pessimism
The opposing concepts of optimism and pessimism have a long history. Domino and Conway (2002) note that philosophers who viewed the cosmos as generally hospitable to life were optimistic, while those who viewed the cosmos as indifferent or hostile were pessimistic. Descartes was essentially an optimist who viewed human beings as creative participants in the improving of conditions of human life (Domino & Conway). Other philosophers, though, like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, contributed to pessimistic explanations of the world and human beings‘ place in it, although occasionally offering glimpses of optimism. According to Peterson (2000), Nietzsche believed optimism only served to extend human suffering. Early psychologists like Freud and James continued the philosophic discourse on optimism and pessimism (Domino & Conway). As psychological research in the 1960s and 1970s began to show that people tend to be somewhat unrealistic and inaccurate in their thinking, the psychological examination of optimism and pessimism began, if not entirely earnestly, at least within pockets of psychology (Peterson). According to Peterson, Tiger in his 1979 book Optimism: The Biology of Hope believed optimism to be a result of our biology and our most defining and adaptive characteristic. At the same time scientists like Tiger were looking at optimism as a species characteristic, researchers like Seligman (and Peterson) were looking at optimism as it varied in individuals. Optimism, like many variables of interest to psychologists, tends to be defined differently by different psychologists.

Peterson argues that optimism is not just a cognitive, but also an emotional and motivational, component. Optimism and pessimism are not necessarily polar opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive (Peterson). There is also the possibility that optimism can go overboard into the ridiculously unrealistic (Peterson; Seligman, 1991). Finally and perhaps most importantly, optimism as an explanatory style can be taught and as such, can alter the course of an individual‘s life. Seligman has spent a significant portion of his career on fostering learned optimism in those who have pessimistic explanatory styles, as well as to offering parents guidance on how to instill a learned, practical level of optimism in their children. Optimism, that human characteristic of expecting good outcomes and better days ahead, is an important mediator of depression and contributor to well-being (Seligman, 1991; Peterson & Bossio, 2002).

Explanatory Style Explained: Optimism and Seligman

Seligman (1991), who began his career with learned helplessness and expanded to explanatory style and attribution before moving on to positive psychology, defines explanatory style as one‘s customary way of explaining bad events. Seligman contends that there are three key dimensions to explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. An individual who believes that bad events are temporary, specific to the situation, and not one‘s own fault has an optimistic explanatory style. Peterson and Bossio (2002) argue that individuals who have an optimistic explanatory style believe that what they do can change the outcome. A pessimistic explanatory style is one that attributes bad events to permanent, pervasive, and personal causes. In contrast to being an agent of change as an optimist can be, the pessimistic explanatory style is far more likely to render one inconsequential.

Explanatory style emerged from reformulated learned helplessness theory, which posited the three dimensions of stability, globalness, and externality (Gillham, Shatte, Reivich, & Seligman, 2002). The reformulated learned helplessness theory (RLHT) predicts pessimistic explanations lead to negative expectations about the future while optimistic explanations lead to positive expectations (Gillham et al.).
So what's this got to do with the cuppa? Explanatory style, Seligman posits, can be learned. If you're naturally a negative person, seeing everything as permanent, global, and your own fault (or that everyone's out to get you), you're not going to be very happy and you're not going to cope well. Things probably won't get better for you because you won't take action to make it better. Why should you? Someone else is always screwing you over or you feel so pervasively negative about yourself that you don't believe yourself to be capable. Self-fulfilling prophecy comes right in and kicks you in the ass.

You all know plenty of folks in the real world who are like this. And we see plenty of them online. The unremitting negativeness with which they view the world sucks you down, or they're the blogs that people flock to in order to watch the train wreck happening before their very eyes. And maybe, just maybe, you have a wee tendency to catastrophize yourself. Perhaps you're a bit of the drama queen, throwing your arm across your forehead and wailing why me?

Well, we probably all have a bit of that, and in the short term, it's not a bad thing; the difference between optimistic and pessimistic explanatory style is that the optimists get their drama over fast It's a momentary blip on the radar. They bitch and then they shake themselves off and redouble their efforts.

While we may have an innate tendency to go one way or the other, with training and effort, the pessimist can learn to look at the world differently, to deliberately and intentionally look at a situation and ask himself, is this going to last forever, does this apply to every aspect of my life, and is it my fault? If the answer is truly yes to fault, then examining why is helpful; lessons can be learned and applied for the future. Is it forever? Well, some things are. But most aren't, and impact bias means we badly estimate how much an event is going to impact us in the future. And very few things apply across the board to every aspect of one's life.

If you don't like where you are, how things are going, well, sometimes you're stuck living through the experience. Sometimes, there is no way out of the situation. There is always a choice on how you choose to view that situation. You can fill your cup or you can empty it.

Me, well, I like a good kvetch as much as the next person, but then it's time to get over it and work to adjust my attitude or the situation, whatever variable is under my control. It isn't always easy. I don't always do it well. But I try to remember, even when I'm down, that it's my damn cup and I get to decide how much is in it.


farmwifetwo said...

When my eldest does his "life sucks" routine I just look at him and say "suck it up boy... life sucks every day... get over it".

He is not impressed :) Tough, the world does not revolve around him, nor does it cater to him.

kathleen said...

Oh..absolutely!! My damn cup!! Yup..thanks..:) Sometimes it is nice to have your "half fullness" reaffirmed..

sharon said...

This post took me back to the days of working with women in prison. All had suffered trauma as children to varying degrees. There was a mix of PTSD, Personality Disorders and psychotic illness. And a whole lot of learned helplessness. I eventually left the profession of social work because I found after some time I could not tolerate the inability or refusal to accept personal responsibility. These women had no concept of choice or control over themselves, their thoughts, choices etc. Which meant they continually made bad choices for themselves and their children, which eventually broke my heart and burnt me out. This was often learnt behaviour rather than biological. Yet despite the lack of self determination or internal locus of control, there was often an amazing level of resilience. It's a very interesting topic to me.
Yes I have a tendency for catastophising from time to time, but I dont stay there. Drama for dramas sake seems incredibly self indulgent at this time in my life. But boy there's a lot of it around. It would make for interesting thesis. How do intrinsic personality types determine how we approach and react to our childrens diagnosis? I have been mulling this over for a while now.

KWombles said...


That would be an interesting thesis; it's likely that the same personality traits that lead to adaptive coping in chronic pain/chronically ill individuals would also weigh in on how parents faced with a child's disability would cope.

Kathleen, half full's better than half-baked, right? :-)

farmwifetwo, learning the world doesn't revolve around us is a real eye-opener. :-) Some of us never figure that concept out. It's probably one of the more important things we can, as parents, help our kids figure out.

Anonymous said...

Is this connected at all to my post about Dr. Naseef and ACT? I'm curious because it seems to be related and I'm trying to figure out if Seligman and the others you mentioned would say that "acceptance" theory would promote pessimism and helplessness or if they would say it just doesn't go far enough.

I have always felt that my tendency towards seeing things in a negative light is a flaw in me and have been told to think more positively but no one has ever said how to do that.

Although I have been working on moving from being pessimistic to more of a neutral "it is what it is" attitude, what you are sharing here makes me see it might be possible to move even further towards a positive view with some more specific instruction.

KWombles said...

Aspergirl Maybe,

No, I haven't read that post of yours, but I'll go and read it this morning. I've got no idea who Naceef is and what ACT is.

Attribution style/explanatory style was a large portion of my thesis work, and it's remained a focus of interest for me since I left graduate school. It's one of those topics I revisit on the blog as I feel I have something additional to offer. The other day was as much an exercise in reminding myself as it was in offering ideas on attitudes in the online community. :)It was my litte personal ass-kicking to get through the latest round of serious shoulder/neck/back pain.

Those are good questions though. It depends; is how you see the world realistic? Or is it skewed to the negative? Do you see things as worse than they really are? That's not helpful to you and there are ways to curb that tendency, even if it's an innate part of who you are. It's not easy, but cognitive therapy can help.

Seligman's Leared Optimism is a helpful book. If people could just think more positively, they would. Examining closely how you're thinking about things and whether those things are accurate is important. After all, if someone's having problems because of something he is doing, to shift the blame onto others, while ego-protecting in the short-term, doesn't allow for change and growth. However, if it really is someone else's fault, blaming oneself is not beneficial.

It's a dance that we all have to do mentally in order to achieve a realistic balance, and when we learn that we can deliberately engage in the balancing act and work to see the world in a way that is most beneficial to us, in as realistic a way as possible, the world opens to us. :-)

Anonymous said...

I know it's been a few days since you posted this, but I wanted to say thank you for the detailed response. I am going to look into the book you mentioned.

I do think the way I see the world tends to be skewed negatively and is not realistic much of the time. That is one of the reasons I have committed to staying in therapy for now - the person I am seeing now has been quite helpful in pointing out some of my thought patterns and tendencies. While I don't always agree with everything he says, I can definitely see improvement in the way I am seeing the world overall.