There’s one line that keeps me from dwelling on the negative when difficult things happen in my life. It’s the moral of a story my dad told me when I was growing up. It’s a version of the classic comedy routine by Danny Thomas.
Here’s the way Dad told it.
“So he starts walking. ‘I hope he has a jack,’ he says to himself. Half way there he mumbles anxiously, ‘He better have a jack.’ When he’s almost there he growls, ‘That son of a b#@t% better let me use his jack!’”
“Minutes later he finally arrives at the gas station. He’s hot; he’s frustrated; he’s fuming. He sees the station owner in the garage and he walks up to him and says, ‘Hey buddy! You can just forget it! Keep your g#@ d@% jack!’”
“He turns around and walks five miles back to his car…with no jack.”
And then this is when Dad looked at me, smiled, and warned: “Don’t build a Jack Story.”
Dad believed you gain nothing by obsessing on the worst things that could happen in a situation. Why invest all your energy in imagining only scenarios that end poorly? Not only do you make yourself feel terrible, you still have to deal with the problem at hand.
Psychologists Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte wrote about the perils of catastrophic thinking in their book, The Resilience Factor. “For many people, their anxiety takes over and they catastrophize – they dwell on a current adversity and within a few minutes have imagined a chain of disastrous events stretching into the future.”
Reivich and Shatte outline an effective five-step method for countering catastrophic thinking. Here’s what they suggest.
- Name your adversity and the worst-case things you believe could happen as a result.
- Evaluate the probability that each of these events will happen. You’ll see the odds are long against any of them coming to pass.
- Next, think of the best-case scenarios possible. They should be so unrealistic that they make you smile, or even laugh. You want to break your “doom and gloom” thinking.
- Now that you’ve plotted the extreme cases – you’ve identified the worst and the best possible results – focus on the most likely outcomes of the adversity.
- Then with your new-found perspective, come up with a solution to remedy the problem.
The bottom line is that we all experience setbacks. Unfortunately, we often forget to look at these situations like even-tempered Sergeant Joe Friday – “all we want are the facts” – on the classic television show, Dragnet. Instead, we turn into Chicken Little and say, “The sky is falling.”
Martin Seligman, best known for his research on learned helplessness, learned optimism, and his role in founding the science of Positive Psychology, believes that pessimism rarely serves us well. Seligman summarized the result of over twenty years of research on pessimism in his book Authentic Happiness: “Pessimists…are up to eight times more likely to become depressed when bad events happen; they do worse at school, sports, and most jobs than their talents augur; they have worse physical health and shorter lives; they have rockier interpersonal relations, and they lose American Presidential elections to their more optimistic opponents.”
Remember Seligman’s research on pessimism: It doesn’t pay well. So follow Reivich and Shatté’s advice to counter catastrophic thinking.
Just remember what my dad said, “Don’t build a Jack Story.”
Peterson, C., Maier, S. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Freeman.
Reivich, K, & Shatté, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.
Image: Flat tire courtesy of Cromely