I was going to start with a story about an optimist and a pessimist but unfortunately it would be the same old one about how the optimist got on with their life while the pessimist stayed at home feeling hopeless – and maybe even resenting the optimist. They both face the same challenges in life but the optimist keeps moving forward while the pessimist stresses about all the things that could go wrong and so chooses self-defeat instead. I mean, really, what is the point?
But perhaps try this one – an optimist and a pessimist went skydiving together. The optimist was really excited and couldn’t wait to fly solo for the first time. The pessimist was stressed to the max about all the things that could go wrong, and how it would end in a face-plant from 10,000 feet. Were two parachutes really enough? Who packed them? Do they know what they are doing? How about an altitude meter to trigger an auto release? So they jump together and the pessimist floated down fully in control (with their heart in their mouth) while the optimist face-planted and died, apparently leaving the release too late.
Some years ago a group of skydivers jumped over the Antarctic. It was a very exclusive and expensive jump involving very experienced parachutists. They all died except one. He was the only one wearing an altitude meter with auto release. Guess who the pessimist in the group was? (Apparently they hadn’t taken into account that the air was thinner and so they fell much faster, and the white landscape didn’t give them the normal references.)
So, what does this teach us about stress? Being stressed is not the same as being under pressure. Pressure is circumstantial. Stress is psychological – it is, by and large, all in our heads. Ultimately the stress we may experience is proportional to how well we rationalise the pressure we may be under.
One of the most significant mechanisms in the creation of stress is pessimism – the view that if something can go wrong it will. The problem is that if we allow ourselves to plumb the depths of pessimism we will become increasingly stressed. And the consequences of that affect our performance in the near term, and in the longer term our physical and mental health.
Conversely, and perhaps ironically, if we are too optimistic we don’t take some things as seriously as we should, as demonstrated by our skydivers. As an example for those of us who don’t jump out of aeroplanes, Walt Disney was an extraordinary optimist and a chain smoker. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer at 64 he said that he knew people could get cancer from smoking, but he really didn’t think it would happen to him. He passed away only weeks later.
Interestingly both optimism and pessimism are genetic. But while we are genetically predisposed either way, nothing is written in stone. And significantly, there are advantages in being pessimistic, which is why we still have the gene for it. While optimists might have the luxury of a ‘sunny brain’, they typically over estimate themselves and opportunity, are poor at risk assessment, and rarely have a ‘plan B’. Clearly, they should not choose high risk activities for fun!
Research has shown that pessimists have a better grasp of reality, have better memories, and typically have a plan A, B, C, D and E. They also live longer (if unhappier) lives. They are also the people you need on your team when all the sunny brains are making key decisions. They balance the equation.
Our challenge is to find ‘the middle way’. This allows us to remain positive, motivated, constructive and grounded (and quite possibly alive).
How do we achieve this? It all comes down to one thing: our personal ‘explanatory style’. That is, how we ‘habitually’ explain the events that are affecting us, to ourselves.
All of us will feel the pain of failure, and when things go wrong or against us. The difference is that an optimist will get over it, while the pessimist will get stuck, and maybe give up altogether. The only variable is the optimist explained it one way, and the pessimist explained it another.
It is relatively easy to change your explanatory style, because it is a conscious process. But we do need to get our thinking out of the antique Freudian notions that we are trapped in our past trauma because our mothers didn’t breast feed us or we couldn’t make it to the potty on time. We do have real time control over our own thinking! And we can change our explanatory style – and from my experience it is not hard.
Our explanatory style is something we learned. It is not burned indelibly into our subconscious. It may have developed from very early childhood – we were taught how to explain the things that affect us by our parents and carers, and the people around us. Or perhaps we learned an optimistic explanatory style but something went horribly wrong and our ‘pessimism gene’ kicked in and took over. Either way, optimism is a choice because we can choose how we explain things to ourselves.
As a pessimist it is important to contrast your thinking with that of an optimist. Ask yourself, when you are having an ‘attack’ of pessimism, how would an optimist see this? As an optimist, it is valuable to take note of the thinking of a pessimist as a way of understanding risk – and reality. If ol’ Walt had of considered this, he would have given up smoking.
There are 3 main differences in the explanatory styles of an optimist and pessimist:
An optimist will see a ‘bad event’ as being an isolated, temporary set of circumstances that does not reflect on them personally. They see these things as random and don’t link it them to their self-perception. This allows them to stay motivated and move on. (The pessimist would just hope that they took responsibility for their actions along the way.)
A pessimist will see the same bad event or failure as being something that happens all the time, is unrelenting, and it is because of there is something wrong with them – they are the reason everything goes wrong, all the time. Life is a disaster because they are. They take everything personally. So no wonder they stress so easily.
Self-doubt, fear, insecurity, anxiety are all factors of stress – and they all continue to exist because we fuel them with a pessimistic explanatory style.
It is interesting to listen to how young children explain things when stuff goes wrong. “Oh, this always happens”, or “I always get this wrong”, even when they have never tried that before. They risk getting trapped in the cycle of self-doubt and pessimism so it is worth helping them to explain things differently – “oh, that didn’t work out this time – that was random, I need some practise”.
My seven year old has a tendency to make failure or mistakes personal, permanent and pervasive. Kids struggle with the idea that they should be able to do everything right, first time. I am constantly reinforcing her attitude that everything requires practice, takes time, and is not a reflection of who she is as a person, and she is accepting that explanation.
At this age she is very willing to take on the idea that things are random and not about her. However a child with parents who have unrealistic expectations and are inclined to criticize will become deeply pessimistic and stress and anxiety will become their default state.
We can extrapolate this to adult thinking and explanatory styles – being self-critical with unrealistic expectations are the poor habits of childhood.
Stress is more than an unpleasant experience. It eats away at our wellbeing, our happiness and our abilities to successfully relate to others and be constructive. It undermines both mental and physical health. And it is a growing problem as our lives become more complicated and the demands on our emotional resources grow.
Our job is to ensure that we explain the things that go wrong as transient, isolated ‘events’ that are not connected to who we are as a person, but to take responsibility, learn, and move forward. Look to the future with the attitude and hope of a sunny brain and remain motivated and constructive. And have a Plan B!
*For more detail on this subject I recommend Martin Seligman’s books, in particular “Learned Optimism”.
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