When we focus on the positive aspects of our life, we enhance our life experience and create beneficial opportunities for the future. American psychologist Martin Seligman, in his book Learned Optimism, identified certain thinking styles which influence how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.
Those who regard good things as insignificant, temporary and attributable to external factors tend to be those who regard bad things as permanent, affecting most if not all of their life. These negative attributional styles set a person up for increased anxiety and distress
On the other hand, there are those who regard good things as significant, not just fleeting flukes, and who are prepared to take credit for their part in these things; these people tend to regard bad things as temporary, affecting only a part of their life (allowing them to enjoy the other parts more fully), and they acknowledge the external factors at play. This style of thinking helps to promote a healthy perspective and reduce anxiety.
Here are some examples:
It is helpful to explain bad things which happen as temporary. Contrast ‘I’ll never succeed’ and ‘Sometimes I am not as successful as I would like to be in that particular situation’. If we find ourselves using the words ‘always’ and ‘never’, this is a good indicator that we may be thinking in terms which are too global and are likely to cause us more distress than if we use more words like ‘sometimes’ or ‘There are times when…’. By the same token it is helpful to explain good things happening as a more permanent state. Contrast ‘It’ll never last’ and ‘Given that it went better this time because I prepared myself better, there’s a good chance it will go well again if I prepare myself well again next time’.
It is helpful, too, to explain bad things as affecting only some specific part or time of your life, and to focus more on other things which are working and could be enjoyed more fully. Contrast ‘My life is ruined’ with ‘That part of my life has not worked out as well as I wanted, but at least…’. We can also practise broadening the potential application of good things. Contrast ‘Well yes, I’m confident in writing/cooking/talking to my close friends, but I’ll never be confident at a job interview’ and ‘Because I’m confident in some areas of my life already, I can learn to develop that feeling in other areas too’.
In terms of recognising the effect of external factors, contrast ‘It’s all my fault’ and ‘It’s unfortunate that it didn’t go as well as I would have liked, but at least...’ as well as ‘I messed that up’ and ‘I am sorry for my part in what happened, but there were other influences/factors at play. This has taught me a lot’. The flip side for when good things happen, of course, is to focus on giving yourself appropriate credit. Contrast ‘That was lucky’ and ‘I did well to achieve that’ with ‘I am not yet as good as I would like to be in dealing with..., but I’m learning skills to deal with it better.’
By simply becoming aware of these styles of thinking and by adapting them to give a fair, balanced and compassionate perspective, we can make a significant and beneficial difference in how we feel.