Oh dear… you were late for work, again.
Or maybe you spotted a typo in your presentation?
Did you not make it to the grocery store in time?
Or you trained hard for that marathon but didn’t make the cut-off time?
Did you do poorly on your exam?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, how did you cope with that outcome? What type of thoughts did you have about that issue?
We will all experience negative events and outcomes at many stages in our lives. This is normal. However, what helps us make sense of that outcome and continue to try again is our explanatory style. An explanatory style is the default explanation that we usually gravitate to when trying to understand why something happened.
In this post, we’re going to look at the optimistic explanatory style, and we’ll learn more about the benefits and how to foster it.
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What Is the Optimistic Explanatory Style?
What is an ‘explanatory style?’
An explanatory style describes how we make sense of adverse events that happen to us (Peterson & Seligman, 1987). Specifically, explanatory styles refer to how we explain the causes of particular events; in other words, why did this event happen to us? Our explanatory styles tend to be stable. We tend to rely on the same type of explanatory style to explain the occurrence of uncontrollable events in our lives.
Typically, two explanatory styles are proposed: pessimistic and optimistic.
Definitions of characteristics of explanatory style
A pessimistic style is one that uses global, stable, and internal explanations for negative events. In contrast, an optimistic style is characterized as using local, unstable, and external explanations for negative events (Peterson & Buchanan, 1995).
Let’s go through these characteristics in more detail.
Local/global characteristics refer to how far reaching the cause and consequences of a situation are. If the cause of a particular event is limited only to that one instance, it is characterized as local.
In contrast, if the event’s cause is far reaching and can affect other domains of our lives, it would be considered global.
An example of a global characteristic would be, “I will never live this down.” In contrast, an example of a local characteristic is, “This is a temporary moment of discomfort, and then I will move on.”
Stable/unstable characteristics refer to how long the cause of the event will last. If the cause of the event is short lived, then it is unstable. If the cause of the event can be considered long lasting, then it would be stable.
An example of a stable explanation is, “This is just the way that it happens”; whereas an unstable explanation is, “This happened because of these specific circumstances.”
Internal/external characteristics refer to the source of control and responsibility for a particular event. If a person attributes responsibility to themself, then the control is internal. If the responsibility is attributed to other people or other factors, then the control is external.
An example of an internal explanation would be “It was my fault”; whereas an example of an external explanation is “This happened because of person X’s actions.”
Describing optimistic explanatory style
When considering an optimistic explanatory style as local, unstable, and external, this means that people who employ an optimistic explanatory style believe:
- The cause of that event to be specific to that event only
- The cause of that event to be short lived
- The cause of that event to be a consequence of other people or the situation itself
Benefits of an optimistic explanatory style
Of the two explanatory styles, pessimism is considered the worst explanation for negative events. Peterson and Seligman (1987) provide an excellent explanation for why this is (my notes in brackets):
“Characterological self-blame [e.g., local control] is the paradigm case of such a case [pessimistic explanation style]. To blame one’s character for a bad event is to expect future bad events since one’s ‘character’ by definition is consistent and general.”
There is some evidence that pessimistic explanatory styles are associated with illness and mortality. For example, Peterson and Seligman (1987) describe how people who relied on a pessimistic explanatory style spent more days in the hospital, were more likely to have a serious health concern, or lived a shorter life.
In contrast, the benefits of an optimistic explanatory style are well established. For example:
- Students who used an optimistic explanatory style reported fewer suicidal ideations compared to those who used optimistic explanatory styles (Hirsch, Wolford, LaLonde, Brunk, & Parker-Morris, 2009; Hirsch & Rabon, 2015).
- Using an optimistic explanatory style is also associated with increased productivity and better job retention (Seligman & Schulman, 1986; see Schulman 1995 for a discussion).
- Improved academic performance is positively associated with an optimistic explanatory style (LaForge & Cantrell, 2003). Children who used an optimistic explanatory style were less likely to give up (Dweck & Wortman, 1982).
An optimistic explanatory style positively predicted college performance, even when controlling for SAT scores and depression (Peterson & Barrett, 1987; Schulman et al., 1990, as cited in Schulman, 1995).
- Sports performance is also affected by explanatory style. Players in team sports who employed an optimistic explanatory style bounced back better after a loss than those who used a pessimistic explanatory style (Rettew & Reivich, 1995).
Players in individual sports who adopted an optimistic explanatory style were unaffected by negative feedback, performing the same or better than previous attempts, whereas players who adopted a pessimistic explanatory style performed worse after receiving negative feedback.
2 Real-Life Examples
In this section, we detail a few examples of an optimistic explanatory style in different spheres.
In the workplace
Bernard has to complete a project for work, due in two weeks. Shortly before the deadline, his manager adds tasks to the project, thus increasing the workload. At the same time, Bernard’s children are ill, and he has to multitask caring for them.
On the day of the presentation, he realizes that the most recent version of his presentation, which he finished that morning at 7:00 a.m., was not shown. Instead, he used yesterday’s version with a few small errors. It is also not as polished as he would prefer. It was awkward, but only briefly, and he received positive feedback about his presentation.
Although Bernard is the type of person who produces good-quality work, he was up against difficult hurdles. However, since Bernard has adopted an optimistic explanatory style, he can make sense of why this particular negative outcome (‘using the old version’) occurred.
With an optimistic explanatory style, Bernard explains away this outcome using the following three characteristics: local, unstable, and external. He acknowledges that this outcome’s causes were unique to this event: He was tired and overloaded. None of these factors are a direct consequence of his behavior because he performed the best he could under those specific circumstances.
Additionally, this was a one-off scenario because his children are not sick every day, and usually the project would have been better defined beforehand. Thus the entire situation was easily explained by localizing the cause of the negative outcome to a few events, which were ultimately outside of his control and had an unstable, short-lived effect.
In the classroom
Sandra has a final exam for her statistics class in a month. She has put in a great deal of effort studying for this exam. Overall, Sandra is a strong student who often performs well, but she has struggled to pass statistics. To prepare, she hired a tutor to help her study, and she wants to earn a distinction (75% or more).
On the day of the exam, she feels comfortable, and although the exam was more difficult than expected, she completes it within the time limit. All of her friends similarly report finding the exam very difficult. Thirty days later, she receives her grade. She did not achieve a distinction, but she did perform better than on previous tests and passes with 68%.
If Sandra has adopted a pessimistic explanatory style, she will attribute her mark to her personal characteristics, rather than considering that her peers also thought that the exam was difficult. For example, she might say something like “It’s my fault,” “I don’t understand statistics,” or “I’ll never do well.”
Instead, with an optimistic explanatory style, she can attribute her score to the exam’s difficulty level while also recognizing that her grade has improved.
Fostering an Optimistic Explanatory Style: 5 Tips
Fortunately, even if your explanatory style has tended to be pessimistic, you can learn to adopt a more optimistic one.
Through formal cognitive therapy with a clinician, patients can change their explanatory style (DeRubeis & Hollon, 1995; Seligman et al., 1988). One such way is to learn problem-solving techniques in order to consider alternative explanations for events.
A clinician can also help a patient reframe an event, explore alternative hypotheses about the event, and give objective and realistic feedback to counter the patient’s mindset.
The second method is a combination of cognitive and social skills (Reivich, Gillham, Chaplin, & Seligman, 2013). Reivich et al. found positive results following attendance in a 12-week program, the Penn Resilience Program. In this program, participants learn a variety of skills such as problem solving, emotion regulation, impulse control, empathy, reaching out to others, self-confidence, and adopting an optimistic but realistic mindset.
After 12 weeks, participants reported a change in explanatory style and were less vulnerable to symptoms of depression even after three years.
These findings have been replicated, although the findings differed slightly. For example, Gillham, Hamilton, Freres, Patton, and Gallop (2006) found that girls performed better than boys following the program. Importantly, the program did not prevent the development of depression overall for all participants but instead was most effective for patients who reported high levels of symptoms.
Additionally, as with most programs, efficacy was positively associated with regular attendance.
From these findings, the following tips can help foster an optimistic explanatory style:
- Visit your therapist regularly and actively work on the skills known to promote an optimistic explanatory style. You could work on these skills in your therapy session, but you could also use journal prompts to help you.
- When faced with a negative situation, brainstorm several reasons for why that event might have happened. Make a point of identifying reasons that cannot be attributed to you or your behavior and that are out of your control.
- When reflecting on a negative outcome, identify parts of your life that were unaffected by that outcome. Which parts of your life remained stable and unchanged? The aim here is to see that the negative outcomes are normally not far reaching and are often short lived.
- Make a list of positive affirmations about yourself. Using these affirmations, reflect on how they remain unaffected by the negative outcome.
- Talk to people whose opinion you can trust and to whom you can turn for realistic feedback about the negative outcome. Try to avoid talking to people who encourage a pessimistic explanatory style. Ideally, you want to lean on a friend who can help you see your strengths and reframe the outcome.
5 PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Tools
These tools will help you move toward a more optimistic explanatory style.
With the Exploring Character Strengths worksheet, you will learn to recognize your strengths. These worksheets can be used in individual sessions or as journal prompts.
There are 10 questions asking you to identify positive traits and characteristics. These characteristics belong to one of the following six categories:
The prompts in this worksheet can be used as-is or modified for different scenarios.
The It Could Be Worse worksheet can be used to challenge negative beliefs and negative outcomes. The user is guided through the exercise with a variety of prompts and asked to consider even worse outcomes than what happened. The exercise aims to reframe negative events as less bad than they seem.
The Understanding Self-Confidence worksheet is appropriate for clients of varying ages. In this worksheet, the client is guided through a series of prompts and asked to reflect on past situations that promoted their self-confidence. Using this knowledge, the client develops a positive affirmation statement and learns to apply problem-solving techniques to help overcome hurdles.
The final two worksheets are used to challenge negative thoughts, which are characteristic of a pessimistic explanatory style. Identifying ANTs teaches clients to identify automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) with a variety of examples to assist the client. This worksheet also includes a set of challenging questions that the client can use to challenge their negative thoughts.
In Getting Rid of ANTs, the client learns how to actively confront automatic negative thoughts. In this exercise, the client identifies the trigger for their negative thoughts, describes the negative thought, and then creates an alternative, adaptive thought to replace the negative one. This exercise can be used in multiple settings and for clients of various ages.
A Take-Home Message
Even though we may present with a pessimistic style initially, the good news is that we can learn to adopt a more optimistic explanatory style.
There are a variety of ways to do that, including identifying negative thoughts, developing alternative scenarios, and creating positive affirmations.
Apply these practices and worksheets daily, and learn how to make lemonade when life gives you lemons.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
- DeRubeis, R. J., & Hollon, S. D. (1995). Explanatory style in the treatment of depression. In G. M. Buchanan & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Explanatory style (p. 99–111). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Dweck, C. S., & Wortman, C. B. (1982). Learned helplessness, anxiety, and achievement motivation: Neglected parallels in cognitive, affective, and coping responses. Series in Clinical & Community Psychology: Achievement, Stress, & Anxiety, 93–125.
- Gillham, J. E., Hamilton, J., Freres, D. R., Patton, K., & Gallop, R. (2006). Preventing depression among early adolescents in the primary care setting: A randomized controlled study of the Penn Resiliency Program. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 34(2), 195–211.
- Hirsch, J. K., & Rabon, J. K. (2015). Optimistic explanatory style and suicide attempt in young adults. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13(6), 675–686.
- Hirsch, J. K., Wolford, K., LaLonde, S. M., Brunk, L., & Parker-Morris, A. (2009). Optimistic explanatory style as a moderator of the association between negative life events and suicide ideation. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 30(1), 48.
- LaForge, M. C., & Cantrell, S. (2003). Explanatory style and academic performance among college students beginning a major course of study. Psychological Reports, 92(3), 861–865.
- Peterson, C., & Barrett, L. C. (1987). Explanatory style and academic performance among university freshman. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(3), 603.
- Peterson, C., & Buchanan, G. M. (1995). Explanatory style: History and evolution of the field. In G. M. Buchanan & M. E.P. Seligman (Eds.), Explanatory style (pp. 1–20). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (1987). Explanatory style and illness. Journal of Personality, 55(2), 237–265.
- Rettew, D., & Reivich, K. (1995). Sports and explanatory style. In G. M. Buchanan & M. E.P. Seligman (Eds.), Explanatory style (pp. 173–185). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Reivich, K., Gillham, J. E., Chaplin, T. M., & Seligman, M. E. (2013). From helplessness to optimism: The role of resilience in treating and preventing depression in youth. In S. Goldstein and R. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of resilience in children (pp. 201–214). Springer.
- Schulman, P. (1995). Explanatory style and achievement in school and work. In G. M. Buchanan & M. E. P. Seligman (Eds.), Explanatory style (pp.159–171). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Seligman, M. E., & Schulman, P. (1986). Explanatory style as a predictor of productivity and quitting among life insurance sales agents. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(4), 832.
- Seligman, M. E., Castellon, C., Cacciola, J., Schulman, P., Luborsky, L., Ollove, M., & Downing, R. (1988). Explanatory style change during cognitive therapy for unipolar depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 97(1), 13.