Whether you're a 'negative Nancy' or a 'positive Pete', optimism can be achieved by improving self-awareness and intepreting situations in a different light. Try the ABCDE exercise explained below to help guide you.
Optimism is as easy as ABC – yes, really! The world is not divided into pessimists and optimists after all. We each have the capacity to be optimistic and passionate about life if we can just learn to breathe, relax and lean into being happy.
Easier said than done – sure, of course it is! And in a world where we are experiencing constant change and challenges and where most of us feel overloaded or stressed being able to tap into that optimism is more important than ever.
Contrary to many self-help books optimism is NOT about positive thinking!
I’m not talking about affirmations or putting on a happy face no matter what the circumstances are. Nor am I talking about banishing negative thoughts and having a blind faith in the ‘law of attraction’.
What I am talking about is cultivating self-awareness, hard work and healthy optimism. That means being able to accurately assess a situation, being able to differentiate between facts and feelings and having faith in your own ability to move forward constructively focusing on what you can do in any given situation.
Our explanatory styles affect whether we are optimistic or pessimistic
Each of us really does have untapped potential and strengths that we generally are not using to the full. Our current economic and world situation invites us to step up to the plate and examine that potential and dare to live it.
In an exciting era of opportunity, change is one way of looking at our current pressures in a different light.
Psychologist and author Martin Seligman says that the key to optimism and pessimism lies in our ‘explanatory styles’ – how we explain life events (good and bad) to ourselves. Seligman believes that optimism can be learned and that anyone can learn it by asking themselves more questions before automatically defaulting into a negative response.
I agree with him. But this takes effort on our parts. It is far easier to fall into a negative reaction and to make assumptions. We do it all the time and it can happen faster than we can blink.
The ‘ABCDE’ exercise: how to spend less time feeling negative
Seligman got people to do the ‘ABCDE’ exercise every day for several weeks, keeping a journal to prove that it is not a situation or event that causes our feelings of unhappiness and negativity but rather our response to the event.
So ‘A’ is the ‘adversity’ or event – this could be anything from how someone looks at you to your partner snapping at you to being rejected for the tenth time for a work proposal.
‘B’ is your belief and how you interpret that event i.e. “my husband doesn’t care about me and he’s disrespectful and rude” or “my proposal was lousy”.
‘C’ is the consequence of that interpretation – your feelings and reactions, which could be shouting back at your partner to firing off an angry email.
ABC is automatic! In the journey to healthy optimism you have to first of all understand your own natural reaction to something so that you can get to ‘D’, which is learning to dispute your interpretation of the event by providing counter-evidence (or asking more questions).
So this might be “I am overreacting. My work is not lousy and there will have been lots of proposals – it’s a tough environment at the moment. My proposal will have not met some of the criteria – maybe I need to find out more about why it was rejected. Maybe I can get some feedback but even if I can’t I know there’ll be a bunch of factors combined that will have resulted in this rejection”
This is certainly not an easy first thing to do in a situation. The natural tendency will be to react. But Seligman says that if we can, over time, get better at disputing our interpretations it can lead to positive feelings over time and the result of that is ‘E’, which is energisation and less time/energy being spent on negative feelings that we produce ourselves.
The ABCDE exercise is just one of those run on our experiential workshops to raise awareness of adaptability, empathy, critical thinking, integrity, being proactive, optimism and resilience.