“While you can’t control your experiences, you can control your explanations.” ― Martin E.P. Seligman
It’s been 23 years since Seligman’s original publication of Learned Optimism, in which he describes optimism and pessimism as explanatory styles rather than dispositional traits. In Seligman’s model, optimists can see the limited context and duration of their problems. They also do not interpret the existence of challenges as comments on them as individuals. In contrast, pessimists see problems as having lasting effects that go beyond the scope of the original issue. They also believe their challenges are due to causes within their control. While the optimists have greater happiness and better outcomes, Seligman pointed out that pessimists tend to be better at risk assessment. In the middle of a pandemic, optimists may have more hope, but pessimists may exhibit more caution and compliance (There are even masks designed for pessimists as shown here.)
What if there is a false dichotomy between optimism and pessimism? Could the same individual filter with the caution of the pessimist and choose the hope and positive outcomes of the optimist?
Those familiar with Learned Optimism or trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy will recognize the ABC model: Adversity (the challenge you’re responding to), Belief (what’s underlying your reactions), and Consequence (your reaction to the event and the fallout). Psychologists added D and E, suggesting that those looking to become more optimistic could practice Disputing their initial reactions and being aware of the changes in Energy to rewire themselves through positive reinforcement.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is predicting a spike in the need for mental health support. As Professor Vikram Patel from the Harvard Medical School puts it, “the pandemic presents a historic opportunity to reimagine mental health care, by realizing the science which demonstrates that we must reframe mental health beyond a narrow focus on ‘diagnoses, doctors and drugs’.” For those with a positive psychology background, Patel is preaching to our choir.
Pragmatic Optimism: Harnessing Both Pessimism and Optimism
Is there a way to gain the benefits of pessimism and the hope of optimism? Pragmatic optimism is a model for intentional decision making when presented with a challenge or sustained stress. First, it requires being logically honest about the facts of the situation in order to set the parameters for proper decision making. Then it involves choosing the most hopeful course of action. Finally, the individual or group continues to use the ABCDE model to reframe explanations until circumstances change.
In Jim Collins’ Good To Great he demonstrates this same concept under the label The Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war in Vietnam who never doubted his ability to survive captivity. Stockdale’s faith in survival echoes Viktor Frankl’s description of surviving Auschwitz. By renewing the well of optimism while continuing to be honest about his circumstances, Frankl avoided sinking into the well of apathy that he engulf others.
As many of us continue to run the gauntlet of pandemic life, social unrest, and political uncertainty, we may feel the strain of our circumstances cause our optimism to wane. Perhaps we can rest in the comfort that there will certainly be life on the other side of the pandemic. We can choose to be both pragmatic and optimistic about how we get there.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Collins.
Frankl, V. (1959). Man’s Search For Meaning. New York: Simon and Schuster.
European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infections Diseases (2020, September 26). Dealing with the global tsunami of mental health problems during and post COVID-19. quotes Professor VIkram Patel, Harvard Medical School.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.
World Health Organization (2020, May 14). Substantial investment needed to avert mental health crisis.