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Cup or Cuppa: You Decide if it’s Half-Full

May 14, 2011

First, some sciency stuff on it (taken from my thesis):

Views on Optimism and Pessimism

The opposing concepts of optimism and pessimism have a long history. Domino and Conway (2002) note that philosophers who viewed the cosmos as generally hospitable to life were optimistic, while those who viewed the cosmos as indifferent or hostile were pessimistic. Descartes was essentially an optimist who viewed human beings as creative participants in the improving of conditions of human life (Domino & Conway). Other philosophers, though, like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, contributed to pessimistic explanations of the world and human beings‘ place in it, although occasionally offering glimpses of optimism. According to Peterson (2000), Nietzsche believed optimism only served to extend human suffering. Early psychologists like Freud and James continued the philosophic discourse on optimism and pessimism (Domino & Conway). As psychological research in the 1960s and 1970s began to show that people tend to be somewhat unrealistic and inaccurate in their thinking, the psychological examination of optimism and pessimism began, if not entirely earnestly, at least within pockets of psychology (Peterson). According to Peterson, Tiger in his 1979 book Optimism: The Biology of Hope believed optimism to be a result of our biology and our most defining and adaptive characteristic. At the same time scientists like Tiger were looking at optimism as a species characteristic, researchers like Seligman (and Peterson) were looking at optimism as it varied in individuals. Optimism, like many variables of interest to psychologists, tends to be defined differently by different psychologists.

Peterson argues that optimism is not just a cognitive, but also an emotional and motivational, component. Optimism and pessimism are not necessarily polar opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive (Peterson). There is also the possibility that optimism can go overboard into the ridiculously unrealistic (Peterson; Seligman, 1991). Finally and perhaps most importantly, optimism as an explanatory style can be taught and as such, can alter the course of an individual‘s life. Seligman has spent a significant portion of his career on fostering learned optimism in those who have pessimistic explanatory styles, as well as to offering parents guidance on how to instill a learned, practical level of optimism in their children. Optimism, that human characteristic of expecting good outcomes and better days ahead, is an important mediator of depression and contributor to well-being (Seligman, 1991; Peterson & Bossio, 2002).

Explanatory Style Explained: Optimism and Seligman

Seligman (1991), who began his career with learned helplessness and expanded to explanatory style and attribution before moving on to positive psychology, defines explanatory style as one‘s customary way of explaining bad events. Seligman contends that there are three key dimensions to explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. An individual who believes that bad events are temporary, specific to the situation, and not one‘s own fault has an optimistic explanatory style. Peterson and Bossio (2002) argue that individuals who have an optimistic explanatory style believe that what they do can change the outcome. A pessimistic explanatory style is one that attributes bad events to permanent, pervasive, and personal causes. In contrast to being an agent of change as an optimist can be, the pessimistic explanatory style is far more likely to render one inconsequential.


Explanatory style emerged from reformulated learned helplessness theory, which posited the three dimensions of stability, globalness, and externality (Gillham, Shatte, Reivich, & Seligman, 2002). The reformulated learned helplessness theory (RLHT) predicts pessimistic explanations lead to negative expectations about the future while optimistic explanations lead to positive expectations (Gillham et al.).

So what’s this got to do with the cuppa? Explanatory style, Seligman posits, can be learned. If you’re naturally a negative person, seeing everything as permanent, global, and your own fault (or that everyone’s out to get you), you’re not going to be very happy and you’re not going to cope well. Things probably won’t get better for you because you won’t take action to make it better. Why should you? Someone else is always screwing you over or you feel so pervasively negative about yourself that you don’t believe yourself to be capable. Self-fulfilling prophecy comes right in and kicks you in the ass.


You all know plenty of folks in the real world who are like this. And we see plenty of them online. The unremitting negativeness with which they view the world sucks you down, or they’re the blogs that people flock to in order to watch the train wreck happening before their very eyes. And maybe, just maybe, you have a wee tendency to catastrophize yourself. Perhaps you’re a bit of the drama queen, throwing your arm across your forehead and wailing why me?


Well, we probably all have a bit of that, and in the short term, it’s not a bad thing; the difference between optimistic and pessimistic explanatory style is that the optimists get their drama over fast It’s a momentary blip on the radar. They bitch and then they shake themselves off and redouble their efforts.


While we may have an innate tendency to go one way or the other, with training and effort, the pessimist can learn to look at the world differently, to deliberately and intentionally look at a situation and ask himself, is this going to last forever, does this apply to every aspect of my life, and is it my fault? If the answer is truly yes to fault, then examining why is helpful; lessons can be learned and applied for the future. Is it forever? Well, some things are. But most aren’t, and impact bias means we badly estimate how much an event is going to impact us in the future. And very few things apply across the board to every aspect of one’s life.


If you don’t like where you are, how things are going, well, sometimes you’re stuck living through the experience. Sometimes, there is no way out of the situation. There is always a choice on how you choose to view that situation. You can fill your cup or you can empty it.


Me, well, I like a good kvetch as much as the next person, but then it’s time to get over it and work to adjust my attitude or the situation, whatever variable is under my control. It isn’t always easy. I don’t always do it well. But I try to remember, even when I’m down, that it’s my damn cup and I get to decide how much is in it.

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