By: Sujatha Rao

Across the world, the year 2021 is the most looked forward to the year.  In 2021, along with the shot(s) of vaccine, can we also inoculate ourselves with a bout of optimism? If there ever was any year in need of that, it definitely is this one.

 At the same time, this job perhaps is made easier since when we look at the future, against the backdrop of 2020, even the most skeptics of us are perhaps more hopeful.  But, how can we make this feeling of optimism to last for long?

In order to find an answer to this question, let’s understand what this phenomenon called ‘optimism’ is all about. The most often quoted parable in this regard happens to be the one involving a half full glass.

When you look at such a glass what do you see? Is the glass half full? Or is it half empty? Actually, what part of your body is in charge when this thing plays out? Is it the eyes or the mind? While eyes are the medium through which you see, it’s the mind which processes what you see.

So, do you often find yourself toggling between both these views? If yes, then welcome to the club.  Most of us see it that way depending upon our frame of mind at that time.

But we are often told that optimists see the glass as half full while pessimists see it as half empty.  So maybe we are tempted to force ourselves to always answer “it’s half full” in an attempt to feel good about ourselves.

Let’s now examine optimism a bit further by going through some scientific research that is relevant. Though there have been a number of studies that have been carried out in this regard, the most significant one is the one by Dr. Martin Seligman, considered to be the founder of positive psychology.

As part of his research on classical conditioning, Dr. Seligman would ring a bell and then give a light shock to a dog. After a few times of doing so, he would place that dog in a large crate with a low fence in the middle, which can easily be jumped over by the dog if necessary. When the light shock was administered, he expected the dog to jump over to the other side to escape.   But the dog simply lay down as though he felt it was hopeless to even try. 

As the second part of his experiment, he tried the same shock with dogs that had previously not been exposed to shock and found that they jumped over to the other side quickly.

This, according to Seligman was due to “learned helplessness” on the part of the dogs that had encountered the situation earlier and had learned to give up.

Learned helplessness has been shown to occur in dogs when they think that there is nothing they can do to escape a negative consequence

From this study, Dr. Seligman deduced that the way “helplessness” was learned under certain conditions, “optimism” too could be learned by training the mind to focus on certain reactions to the situations.

Dr. Seligman who had been feeling highly frustrated with psychology’s overly narrow focus on the decease and the negative, lapped up this opportunity to dedicate his research on human wellbeing and flourishing instead.  So when he got elected the president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, he totally threw himself into researching the life-giving rather than life-depleting field of positive psychology.

Since then several researchers have forged further in this direction, be it Mihaly Csikzenmihalyi in terms of focusing on “Flow” or Angela Duckworth who came up with the importance of “Grit” or Carol Dweck who studied the significance of a “Growth Mindset”.

These studies point out the fact that optimism can be learned and nurtured. While you have no control over what happens to you, by practicing an optimistic explanatory style, you can avoid viewing these negative happenings in their most permanent, pervasive, and personal light. In his bestselling book “Learned Optimism” Dr. Seligman recommends the ABCDE approach to help us lead a more optimistic life in general.

ABCDE Technique

ABCDE technique is based on our explanatory style to the situations that we find ourselves in and is very simple to practice. During the stressful situations we face in our daily life, the technique advocates us to analyze these situations from the following five aspects; ABCDE having been culled out from the first letter of each of these aspects:

Adversity; Belief, Consequences, Disputation and Energization

The premise of the ABCDE technique is that when a negative situation (Adversity)  occurs, our thought process (Belief) actually leads to the way we feel (Consequence) which can be altered through changing our explanatory style (Disputation) thereby resetting the earlier consequence into a positive one (Energization).

The following example of a situation that is somewhat common to occur in our daily work life will highlight how the ABCDE technique is intended to play out:

Adversity: My Boss Mr. Gupta yelled at me in front of my colleagues in a meeting. I felt terrible and ashamed.  Since then, I have this nagging feeling that the whole office is giving me condescending looks.

Belief: My Boss hates me and the whole office now thinks I am an incompetent jerk.

Consequences: I felt like disappearing into thin air at that moment.  Now I dread going to work. Maybe I should simply quit.

Disputation: Just because Mr. Gupta yelled at me, it doesn’t mean he hates me. He was the same one who had appreciated my work in front of everyone earlier and had even recommended me for promotion two years back.  He is just criticizing the quality of my work on this particular project.  As far as the colleagues are concerned, I think I am imagining things as they have been as helpful as ever.  

Energization: Though I still feel a bit bad about being yelled at in public, I am feeling much better than before and I don’t feel miserable about going to work anymore.

Dr. Seligman’s research recommends recording each and every negative situation in a journal and practicing the ABCDE technique consciously over a period to change the way we perceive life in general and to turn ourselves into more optimistic people.

But why do we need to turn ourselves into optimists? What is in it for us? Research has shown that:

  • Optimists have better physical health and hence tend to live longer.
  • Learning to change the explanatory style to a positive one seems to really pay off in children. In the Princeton Penn Longitudinal Study, it was found that the learned helplessness and pessimistic explanatory style were the cause of depression in schoolchildren.
  • It was also found that everything else being equal, the individual with the more optimistic explanatory style would go on to win, as he would end up trying harder after every defeat since he wouldn’t view it as all-pervasive, personal and permanent loss.
  • Optimists are more successful at work.  In fact, in a study conducted on insurance agents, Dr. Seligman found that the most optimistic of these agents sold 88% more than their pessimistic counterparts.  The same study also highlighted that the pessimistic people were 3 times likely to quit these jobs than the optimistic ones.
  • As surprising as it may sound, in-depth research of the various speeches by the electoral candidates in America over the past several decades has revealed that American citizens were more likely to elect an Optimistic person to lead the country.

However, the optimistic explanatory style should not be carried so far as to draw a conclusion that it’s a panacea.  Well, it isn’t.  It has its own limitations.  Carried too far, optimism may prevent us from seeing reality and even offer an excuse to some people for not to owning up responsibility for their failures. But despite these limitations, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

Now that COVID-19 has given us the shock and a wake-up call that we all needed to remind ourselves of the beauty in the transience of life, let’s take a leap into the new decade by learning to unleash the optimism within ourselves.

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