A significant body of scientific work reveals that how we interpret bad events that happen to us has big consequences for our mental and even physical health
Look for the Silver Lining, urged the popular American song by Jerome Kern and George DeSylva in 1919. As successful, New York-born sons of foreign immigrants, both shared a buoyant optimism about life and powerfully expressed it through music. The world’s most horrendous war in history had just ended, leaving more than thirty million casualties. Nevertheless, the song’s upbeat tune and lyrics advised to 'always find the sunny side of life' and look for golden rays behind clouds. Though lambasted by cynics as a childishly naïve viewpoint, it’s strongly supported by positive psychology today. For a significant body of scientific work reveals that our explanatory style (how we interpret bad events that happen to us) has big consequences for our mental and even physical health.
A leading figure in emphasizing this concept is Dr Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. His research began in the mid-1980s, in studying the explanatory style of professional American baseball players and managers. By analyzing their public statements as reported in hometown newspapers, Seligman found that 'optimistic teams' (that is, whose statements were hopeful about their future performance) did better than their previous win-loss records would suggest. In sharp contrast, 'pessimistic teams' (whose utterances were bleak about their future performance) actually did worse.
During the same period, a study by the National Basketball Association of the USA reported similar findings: for both individuals and teams, an explanatory style existed that could be identified and measured. And, crucial in Seligman’s view, these styles predicted victory -above and beyond sheer athletic ability. How so? Because playing-field success was related to optimism, whereas failure was related to pessimism. In other words, hopefulness had a real impact on subsequent athletic performance.
Of course, success in professional sports is only a tiny aspect of human achievement or well-being. Consequently, Seligman and his colleagues investigated the role of explanatory style in a more vital area of life: namely, physical health. In a landmark study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they found that having a pessimistic explanatory style is a major risk factor for bodily illness. Utilizing personality and health data collected among Harvard University classmates decades earlier - during World War II - Seligman’s team was able to retrospectively determine that explanatory style affected students’ subsequent health from ages thirty to sixty. That is, those who were pessimistic as college students were significantly more likely to have poor health in later years than those with a sunny outlook. Intriguingly, the effect didn’t manifest immediately—but became statistically significant at age 40 and peaked around age 45. Most likely, this finding reflects the fact that health problems typically begin in midlife rather than in early adulthood.
Why would people who interpret their life experiences pessimistically develop greater health problems than those who do so optimistically? Several explanations are possible. It may be that pessimists are more fatalistic—that is, less likely to take action to safeguard good health through diet, exercise, and adequate sleep, and more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like cigarette smoking and junk food a consumption. In addition, pessimists may be less likely to see a doctor for a bothersome pain or ailment, since they have a more hopeless outlook: by delaying or avoiding medical help, they may exacerbate their health difficulty.
Scientific research shows that our explanatory style impacts work achievement and even early school prowess. For example, Drs Philip Corr and Geoffrey Gray at the University of London found that an optimistic explanatory style predicted job success among British insurance company salespeople—in both their monetary sales and their performance rating. In a later study led by Dr Blake Ashforth at Arizona State University, successful work adjustment among pharmaceutical company managers was linked to their explanatory style. And in the academic domain, Dr Shirley Yates at Australia’s Flinders University found that optimistic primary and lower secondary students had better math achievement than their pessimistic peers. So it seems that the effect in our life begins early!
Contemporary researchers view explanatory style as comprising three distinct features. These relate to (1) Permanence: That is, do you believe that the distressing situation will always exist or will be only temporary? For example, one person experiencing a job loss or divorce may feel sure that the stress will never end, whereas her friend may see the identical situation as short-lived. (2) Pervasiveness: That is, do you view the unpleasant situation as all-encompassing or specific in nature? One college student who fails a required course may give up on everything,
Can you learn to change your explanatory style? As we’ve seen, psychologists believe that the worst outlook is to see an unfortunate situation as ever-lasting, all-encompassing, and caused by your own incompetence. So the more you’re able to minimize such thinking, the better your mental—and even physical health—is likely to be. Specifically, how can you do this?
Here’s a useful tip: recall a past experience which turned out badly for you--perhaps a vacation, a college course or job, a friendship or a romantic fling—and for which you’ve often blamed yourself. After describing the debacle, now consciously change your habitual self-talk. First, affirm that the event happened and is over; it no longer exists. Second, recognize that it was confined to only a small part of your life. Last, determine that it wasn’t 100% your fault by identifying a person or circumstance that was also responsible whereas another might simply re-appraise whether to shift to another academic specialty.
(3) Personalization: That is, do you blame yourself entirely for a bad event, or instead spread the blame to others? As you might suspect, it’s not psychologically healthy to engage in self-beratement whenever something goes wrong. As the sculptor Auguste Rodin observed in teaching his talented student Malvina Hoffman (no relation to this columnist), “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.”
Now let it go. You’ll likely feel much better as a result.
Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org