Thanks to John Lennon, people hear the word “imagine” and think of an idealistic, positive future. In reality, when we think of what will happen in the future, most people think negative thoughts.
Historically, due to a constant struggle for survival people were preoccupied with constantly identifying dangers. Personal and familial survival was challenged on a daily basis, and it was adaptive to think negatively and worry about dangers and worst-case scenarios.
Yet even today, there are many people who live with the same sense of
hypervigilance and worry about danger. The first smell of smoke in the
house, the siren of a police car, the crash of thunder and the first
sign of fever can make many people nervous and worrisome and begin
Martin Seligman at the University of
Pennsylvania claims cognitive scientists have demonstrated that negative
thinking patterns lead to negative emotional reactions. Therefore, the
thought of danger causes anxiety, the thought of loss causes sadness and
the thought of trespass causes anger. If we habitually think that
misfortune is lurking and enduring, it will become inevitable.
you think about bad events that happened to you in terms of “always”
(“I never win”), then you have a permanent negative and pessimistic
style of thinking. That can lead to a universal pervasive interpretation
of failure even when failure strikes only one area of life.
example of this would be losing a job if it then leads to feelings of
social incompetence and withdrawal from friends, family and loved ones.
Ultimately that leads to helplessness and depression. On the other hand,
if you interpret and think in terms of “sometimes” using qualifiers for
bad events, you have an optimistic style. Such a person will feel that
next time in the same situation the result will be different.
developed the concept of “learned optimism,” which uses a cognitive
approach to help people overcome negative pessimistic thoughts by
disputing them. Cognitive psychology has shown that arguing against
negative pessimistic interpretations and expectations improves your
ability to cope and helps relieve anxiety and depression.
train yourself to argue against a negative style and develop a more
realistic, optimistic thinking style. For example, if you had tried and
failed to sell your car, you would be considered optimistic if you
attributed the failure to causes that were external and specific (e.g.
wintertime is a buyers’ market). On the other hand, if you attributed it
to causes that were internal and pervasive (I am terrible at persuading
people), you are considered negative and pessimistic. To dispute that,
you would learn to take an objective approach and look at all the
factors that could impact the sale (timing, location, type of car,
IN ADDITION to helping with anxiety and depression an
optimistic approach can also be a strong motivating tool to change
Researchers have documented optimism’s positive impact
in helping people reach a particular goal. This is most effective when
people focus on an image of the goal, and the steps needed to reach that
Dr. Dean Ornish, a cardiologist who has written six books
on heart disease, conducted a study of 333 patients with severely
They were all at high risk for a major heart operation.
gave them incentives to quit smoking and put them in a program with
meditation, yoga and aerobic exercises. One year later, 77 percent stuck
with the new lifestyle changes and avoided bypass surgery or
Ornish claims this approach worked because he
reframed the program from the negative to positive. Rather than
threatening them to change their destructive habits or die within 12
months, he had them experience healthy living, joy and a hopeful future.
His conclusion was that no one would be motivated (even by the threat
of death) if they are in constant chronic pain. If they have an
experience and vision of the “joy of living” and the steps needed to get
there, that optimistic message would motivate them.
immediate impact of optimism was studied by Laura King, a professor at
the University of Missouri. She instructed students to spend 20 minutes
writing a narrative description of their “best possible future selves.”
Basically this is a mental exercise in which you visualize the best
possible future for yourself in multiple domains of your life. It is an
energizing and enjoyable activity. Kling found that people who wrote
about their vision for 20 minutes a day over several days, relative to
those who wrote about other topics, were more likely to show immediate
increases in positive moods, to be happier several weeks later and even
to report fewer physical ailments several months later.
does have limitations and the guideline for not deploying optimism is to
ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation.
the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy. The airline
pilot deciding to deice the plane one more time, or the partygoer
deciding whether to drive home after drinking, should not use optimism.
The costs of failure are too great. On the other hand, if the cost of
failure is low, use optimism. Take the risk when failure is only a lack
It is important to see the difference between this approach and the power of positive thinking.
thinking often involves trying to believe upbeat statements such as
“every day in every way, I am getting better and better.” In the absence
of evidence, most people get skeptical quickly and consider such
statements silly cheerleading. Learned optimism in contrast is about
accuracy. It is a developed skill of disputing pessimism and identifying
steps to an optimistic goal. When the goal is important to you, and you
can see the steps to its outcome, you will persist in the plan even
when you hit inevitable obstacles.
“A pessimist sees the
difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in
every difficulty” – Winston Churchill.Dr
Mann is a Jerusalem based clinical psychologist and certified life
coach who helps teenagers, adults and executives achieve positive goals.