Friday, January 12, 2007


I've decided to try to be more optimistic, because I think it's actually a lot more enjoyable than being pessimistic.

Some people think life is mostly bad. Others, mostly good. I think, philosophically, life is neutral. It's not good or bad, it just happens and it is what it is. The events of our lives have no ethical, moral, or emotional significance in and of themselves - we give them significance through our beliefs about them. It is our beliefs about situations that make them "good" or "bad" (and this is a good thing, otherwise life would be pointless).

So then by being careful what we think about situations, we can actually see them as being more "good" and less "bad". Let me explain more, borrowing a useful insight about our reactions to the events of life that I found on, an interesting site:

Dr Albert Ellis, prominent psychology researcher developed the ABC model to explain our reaction to adversity.

A is the adversity.
B is our belief about the adversity and
C is the consequence of our belief.

Our reaction to adversity is not so much a result of the adversity but a result of our belief about the adversity.

Interesting. There are a series of articles on the site discussing this and what makes us optimistic or pessimistic here, here, and here.

So perhaps our overall philosophy isn't what makes us optimistic or pessimistic, but rather it is the sum of each thought we have in response to each situation. Our habits of thought become "bedded in", and become quite hard to change. The trick, I think, is understanding what our habits of thought are and finding other ways to think about situations.

It's not a magical "3 steps to a happy life". Life doesn't work that way. But I think it's possible to see more good in life so that we can deal better with the bad, and I intend to try.


Jim said...

I think that's a bit overly simplistic,
and just plain wrong.

whilst I could accept you saying that life in general is neutral, when looking at individual events I think there are things that are good and things that are bad.
Bad situations can be redeemed - good can come out of them... but that doesn't make them good.
And I don't think simply changing our point of view necessarily makes a bad situation was a good one.

the examples in the articles you link mostly seem to have C simply being a feeling or thought process... and have no actual acted out consequences.

That said.. being optimistc can be healthy.. but I don't think optimism is just telling yourself that a bad situation is actually a good one

incognito said...

Jimmy my friend, you always have been one for dramatic statements of disagreement eh? =)

Yes, I agree that some situations are bad because the beliefs we have about them are right. For example, the death of a child is typically and understandably bad because of a whole bunch of good reasons and beliefs. I'm not suggesting that these can become "good" by positive thinking, because that would be to hold silly beliefs about them.

But there are a lot of situations that we can view in more of a positive or negative light, depending on our perspective. In those cases, I think holding an optimistic viewpoint is useful.

Regarding "C" being a thought or feeling. Yes, but I imagine we could add a "D" which is what we do as a result of those thoughts or feelings.

I heard the other day that optimistic people apparently see more opportunities than pessimists, and thus probably act on more opportunities than pessimists.

I think the "belief about situations" idea helped me because before I was trying to change my thoughts of stage "C" without changing "B". This meant I was always battling myself to not be pessimistic and I couldn't figure out why, when I wanted to be more positive. Whereas now I can understand what ideas are making me pessimistic, and start thinking of ones that would lead to more positive thoughts. That's why I thought it might be useful for other people.

Jim said...

somewhat tangentionally...

In one of my fuzzy management courses we did a section on optimism type stuff...

there was a twofold measurement of optimism levels..
1) Level of expectation that good things will happen to you
2) Level of expectation that bad things will happen to you

It wasn't so much about response to things... but expectations

incognito said...

Yep, good comment. That's probably important too. You'll see more good things if you're looking for them, I guess.

nato said...

Jim, you should stop being such a pessimist...

Generally I'm pretty suspicious of psychology that you dig up on the internets, and this time I have to grudgingly admit that this stuff that Reuben has dug up is kinda decent. While it's probably not the same as modern cognitive behavioural therapy, it shares some of the same roots. And CBT is one of the most effect form of modern psychotherapy. So "just plain wrong"? It works to significantly improve people's lives...

The whole ABC thing is basically an outworking of attribution theory. Generally speaking, it's just saying that the effect of an event on a person often depends on how they interpret it. Ok, sure, if someone loses an arm, they've lost an arm. But how they deal with it is what is ultimately going to determine their long term psychological outcome.

wikipedia on ABCs is helpful.

It's ironic that this solution of how to be an optimist is in essence the same as the one I suggested to you earlier; an optimist is one who thinks positive thoughts, so to be one, think positive thoughts.

incognito said...

I like your summary Nato: "the effect of an event on a person often depends on how they interpret it." That's nice and easy to understand.

"Think positive thoughts" may sound good, but I have found I can't just see things positively without finding reasons to see them positively. I find it doesn't work if you just will yourself to think "this is good" over and over, you need to see the reasons why it's good - "a positive side of this is that...". To use the ABC model, you're not just suppressing negative interpretations of events, but you're replacing them with positive ones.

Incedentally, optimists apparently live longer than pessimists too.

Rebel Heart said...

my mum works with disabled people and one of the teenagers she looks after has multiple sclerosis and can't move anything but her head (slightly), she's severely overweight and has to be fed through a tube and takes a shit out of a tube. her mum is a marriage counsellor and divorced and tells other people to be optimists but brings her daughter in party pills (legal nos) in order to cheer her up because she gets depressed all day. she looks forward to having sex with her mentally-retarded boyfriend but has recently contracted some form of HIV which gives her much pain. this is just one of the tens of people my mum looks after each day. i think they must just be stupid to be depressed and pessimists and obviously just don't know how to look at life in an optimistic way, as their disabilities are obviously just "neutral" situations

incognito said...

Of course situations like those you mention aren't "neutral", they sound terribly bad. And I don't think anyone here is suggesting that we don't recognise that.

I took out a paragraph in my original post, but restate it here because you've highlighted that it's important. It is always important to recognise good things as being good and bad things as being bad. We need to interpret events accurately. There is nothing good about having multiple sclerosis, for example. Just as it is never good to loose an arm, a leg, a loved one, or freedom. The world is abundantly full of bad things.

The reason I made this post was not to ignore bad things, but to highlight that we shouldn't ignore the good things either, because it is these good things that help us deal with the bad. The world is also abundantly full of good things. They don't make the badness any less bad, but they are good.

So I think our perspective is important. To illustrate, I have seen people with serious disabilities like those you mention who have somehow managed to come to terms with it and somehow still find some happiness. I struggle to understand how they do this, but I think it's related to how they are interpreting their situations.

Yet there are others, as you mention, who are not so lucky. It is not their fault for feeling bad about their situations, and they have good reason to feel sad. I think it is good to try to help these sort of people to somehow find a fulfilling life, but I know that this is much easier said than done. In some cases it seems near impossible.

Tragedy happens. And I can think of nothing more painful than when it happens to us personally. Yet even in this sort of situation alternative ways of dealing with the situation do exist - even if we don't see any alternatives. When bad things happen to us, they are certainly bad. Yet it is not a law of the universe that they always make us feel sad, it is simply what happens most often.

In all that ramble I'm trying to say this: the degree of positive or negative feelings people often correlate with what we might consider to be the "goodness" or "badness" of their situations, but often they DON'T correlate. The difference, I think, is in our perspectives.

Anaru said...

Here’s my two cents.

When it comes to situations one has to be cautious about thinking positively at the expense of being real. It you think something sucks (eg I wish I understood this material I am studying) and then replace it with a positive thought (eg but hey I get a day off work to learn this stuff and not many people get that chance) then you may just end up putting the reality of life to one side and ignoring the fact that real changes need to be made. I would suggest that sometimes to be optimistic you need more to acknowledge the bad, live with it, work through it and be thankful that a new season will come.

When it comes to people it pays to think positively. By this I mean sometimes people say/do something that really grates me but it helps me to value that person if I think of some great characteristics about that person. Replace the negative thought with a positive one. Occasionally constructive criticism may be appropriate but this is overall positive (if you don't stuff it up). Negative thoughts about others can generally be replaced with positive ones.

incognito said...

Yes, I think there is a danger of not being "real". And unbalanced positivity can indeed lead to people ignoring issues that should be addressed.

But that danger goes both ways - you can ignore the good as well as the bad.

So perhaps the solution is to try to be observant and to fully experience both the good and the bad in life. After all, doesn't the "fullness of life" include sad things also? I think life is a bit like a rollercoaster - without the ups and downs it would be emotionally boring. Worse still, it would be spiritually dull... because I think the meaningful parts of life and love happen through those ups and downs.

I think in the past I have been so focussed on the "downs" that I've been not seeing the good things. Perhaps I've even been imagining things to be worse than reality. And that's another good thing about experiencing both the highs and lows fully - it gives a broader perspective so that we get a more accurate perception of life.