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Is feeling better as easy as ABC?

written by Nicholas Hall 6 June 2007

Nicholas Hall, MAPP '06, is the manager of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Behavioral Lab. He consults on worker satisfaction and engagement, and sits on the advisory board of Omnirisk Management Tools. His research work focuses on work satisfaction, character strengths, and positive psychology, and is published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Articles by Nicholas are here.

A-B-C blocks I recently applied to a one-week summer scholarship program, one that sounded really great, and wouldn’t you know it, “we were overwhelmed by applicants, and although yours was excellent…” Sigh. Another rejection! Ugh. That’s life, I guess. Along with that parking ticket I got yesterday, and the lack of sleep over the last couple of weeks, I just don’t feel well. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do…

Hmmm… that sounds like helplessness talk to me. And we know where helplessness can lead… depression (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1995)! Yikes! Well, I certainly don’t want to go down that road. What to do, what to do…? Ah! I remember a way to counteract those thoughts and feelings. It’s called the ABCDE method (Seligman, 1992, Reivich & Shatte, 2003).

OK, OK, how do I do it?

Below is an outline of the ABCDE method for disputing your thoughts. The idea is that your thoughts can generate your feelings. So, if you take active control of your thoughts, you are in turn taking active control of your emotions (Reivich & Shatte, 2003).

Having a pen and paper handy is helpful with this exercise.

1. Adversity: Describe a recent Adversity. Include the Who, What, When, and Where of the situation. Be specific and accurate in your description. Don’t let your beliefs about the adversity creep in! Be objective.

This should be easy… I got rejected today from an interesting program. That’s pretty objective.

2. Beliefs: Record what you were saying to yourself in the midst of the Adversity. What was running through your mind? Write it down verbatim. Don’t worry about being polite!

“Man, this always happens.” “I’m just not good enough.” “It’s all about who you know, and I don’t know anybody.” ”Maybe I’m not cut out for this sort of thing.”

3. Consequences: Record the Consequences of your Beliefs (what did you feel and what did you do?). Be specific. List all of the emotions you experienced and as many reactions as you can identify. Ask yourself: Do your Consequences make sense given your Beliefs? If you don’t have the Aha! experience, see if you can identify other Beliefs that you may have not been as aware of initially.

I felt worse and worse thinking this way. I began to not take any action on other projects that I wanted or needed to do today. I felt pretty low, and I began comparing myself negatively to others that I thought were better off than me.

Yes, these feelings and actions DO make sense given those beliefs!

4. Dispute: Generate one piece of Evidence to point out the inaccuracy in your Beliefs, or generate a more accurate/optimistic Alternative belief about the Adversity, or Put Into Perspective your Belief. You can use the tag lines below to craft your responses:
a. Evidence: That’s not completely true because…

That’s not completely true because I know a lot of great people, and some of them are in great positions. I have achieved great things like this in the past.

b. Alternative: A more accurate way of seeing this is….

It really is only for one week, it’s not like I got rejected from Yale.

c. Putting It In Perspective: The most likely outcome is… and I can… to handle it.

The most likely outcome of this is that I put my energy into another big project I’m currently working on, and I can work harder and be more focused on this project and that will help me handle the rejection from the scholarship.

5. Energy: Write a few sentences about how your Disputation changed your Energy. What happened to your mood? How did your behavior change? What solutions did you see that you didn’t see before?

My energy became more focused and clear. I felt much more competent in my abilities and in my future. My behavior changed by getting me back to working hard on the things that matter to me, because I want a positive future for myself. The solutions I saw were about what I could DO for myself, rather than let the world happen to me.

The preceding is a template for you to use when those thoughts hit critical mass and begin to tip your feelings into places you don’t want them to go. Practice makes perfect with this exercise, so use it often! Good luck!

Wait! Luck implies that the world happens TO you. Instead of luck… Have Optimism!




Peterson, C., Maier, S. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Freeman.

Reivich, K, & Shatt?, 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.

The image was drawn by Kevin Gillespie for the version of this article appearing in the PPND book, Resilience: How to Navigage Life’s Curves.

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Senia 6 June 2007 - 4:19 am

Super, Nick! We were studying this all week in resilience training. Thank you for the clear example!

Jeff Dustin 6 June 2007 - 7:35 am

In one online interview Seligman talked about emotion as a dipstick for good commerce with the world.

*Is it better to feel good first, then to act or to act and then feel good about the consequences of the action?

It is not a chicken or egg question but a pragmatic one. I believe that people who deal with a more neurotic personality type (Big 5) probably have a significantly higher number of pessimistic thoughts per day than an extroverted, calmer personality type.

I’ve become tired disputing a multitude of pessimistic thoughts, not energized. Though this could be an efficiency problem, maybe we should just dispute the small number of really powerful negative thoughts, oftentimes there is a stream of consciousness that downward spirals and creates abundant pessimism.

Given that the ultimate aim is to change overt behavior and private behavior (cognitions, emotions) and that there are behavioral therapies like in vivo exposure/desensitization (desensitization), what are ways to act when you DON’T feel good? I think PP could have a huge impact on the cortical lottery losers.

Are there any exercises to desensitize to negative emotions and get the job done (change overt behavior)?

Kathryn Britton 6 June 2007 - 8:52 am

I guess the question is, why do they all have to carry you? Why do you have to dispute them all? Can you just watch while some of the negative emotions go by, picturing them like flotsam in the river of life — part of you, but not controlling you?

Tal Ben Shahar gave a workshop at the last Positive Psychology Summit. He spoke about owning and not denying our negative emotions. He said there are two types of people who don’t experience negative emotions — psychopaths and dead people. So give yourself permission to be human — to experience anger, envy, doubt, …. He quoted Wegner’s paradox (1994) — that we overcome negative emotions by experiencing them, not by denying them.

So I guess part of the ABCDE approach is figuring out which beliefs behind negative emotions are worth disputing. You don’t dispute the emotions — you dispute the beliefs behind them.

For the rest, picture them floating by — part of you, but not controlling you.

Does that help?

Dana 15 June 2007 - 4:24 pm

Great description of the ABCDE method in action. Thanks Nick!

Jeff Dustin 16 June 2007 - 12:43 pm

Sorry about the long delay to your question. It took some thinking because I wanted to word my response thoughtfully.

I disagree with Wegner’s paradox in one sense. If by emotions he includes bad moods, then I think that is a misguided axiom. According to Paul Ekman, a prominent emotion research psychologist, moods serve little evolutionary function at all, but are probably a byproduct of intense emotional experiences.

Personally, I have no major problem with negative Emotions, but Moods are the killer. They lower productivity, cause lots of grief and stress and make life subjectively miserable. Sure you could accept the moods, but then why pursue happiness at all? Why did I read and buy all those PP books?

That advice sounds like: accept the problem and just passively sort of let it go. So no, that would not work for me and I do not find that advice helpful, but I appreciate your sentiment behind it.

PP’ers have said that happiness is a skill that is learned and has to be practiced, which I agree with, but I must say, no one has shown well what it means to think fluently as in speed+accuracy over time. How would you measure progress? Because you feel better?

I’m just thinking out loud here.

Kirsten Cronlund 16 June 2007 - 1:07 pm


I can understand where you’re coming from on this. There’s a very subtle difference between wallowing in a negative mood or emotion, and actually allowing the mood or emotion to be. I think the key is in the concept behind meditation, during which you step back and allow yourself to just BE. You become the Watcher, which is separate from any mood or emotion, not attached in any way to removing that mood or emotion, but also not embracing it. Deepak Chopra has a suggestion in one of his books, which is this: When you find yourself overcome by a strong negative reaction to something, get youself in a comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed, focus on your breathing for a while to get centered, and then give attention to the negative emotion. Give it all of your attention, so that it grows and grows. Keep going until you reach the point where it starts to burn itself out. It starts to dissipate. You’ll know you’re finished with the exercise when you find yourself having the desire to laugh about the situation or to shrug your shoulders. I’ve tried this, and it really works. What it does for me is to remind me that the strong emotion (or mood or whatever) is not a part of me, in a way that trying to shove it aside would not produce.

Jeff Dustin 16 June 2007 - 4:27 pm

Although I’ve never had direct success with this method, for me the mood intensifies and eventually burns out, but typically it leaves a wake of devastation in its path, whether from very poor productivity (taking the time to examine the bad mood takes time away from whatever project I am working on), irritability (I say things that damage loved ones or do things I regret) or simply a downward spiral where I feel just worse after examining the details of the nasty mood.

It is the behavior that the mood induces and the subsequent chain of private internal behavior (thinking, emoting) that make the mood so unhelpful. If you’ve ever been snappish at your loved ones even though they did little to provoke the mood or if you’ve ever felt extremely bored and avoided doing important activities then you have a taste of what I mean.

Dave Shearon 18 June 2007 - 9:17 pm

Jeff, your comments got me to thinking about “moods.” ABCDE is a technique/skill for dealing with adversities, not moods. I have not studied moods, but my intial thoughts would focus around positive emotions.

If I were working with someone who wanted to “lift” their normal moods, I’d look at exercise (the research has looked at levels of 3X per week for 30 minutes) and sleep. If anxiety or irritation are part of the bad moods, simple, quick deep breathing exercises could be helpful.

I’d also ask about trying some positive-emotion building activities such as Three Good Things (maybe specifically thinking about, “When was I in a good mood today?”) or Using Your Strengths in a New Way. A Positive Portfolio might be an approach also. That’s a some things — songs, pictures, tangible items, etc. — that tend to reliably elicit for you a particular set of feelings. Since I sometimes need a “get it done/act now/quit aiming and pull the trigger” boost, I put together a set of songs that say those things to me. Sometimes when I recognize I am dithering, I put on the headphones, start listening and acting.

Finally, I’d see if there were interest in exploring approaches to encreased engagement, possibly including taking Strengthsfinder 2.0 and doing some work with the approaches suggested by Marcus Buckingham in Go Put Your Strengths to Work.

Since we are not working together, these are more just thoughts in a direction. However, if they should prove attractive to you, great! If not, best wishes in finding ways to move forward.

Jeff Dustin 19 June 2007 - 10:49 am

I like your thinking, Dave. You are definitely one of the happy smart ones.

Let’s drill down on this concept and see if we can come up with something cool. First, I want to correct the misconception that disputation is not for improving moods. It has been heavily sold as a mood booster by Seligman, Reivich and Shatte, Ellis, Beck, Greenberger and Padesky, Burns and on and on the list goes.

In fact, you might say disputation arose for the sole purpose of boosting mood levels, especially as a cure for depression (A.T.Beck), a cognitive behavioral mood disorder.

You know I am rabidly interested in motivation psychology because I am convinced, CONVINCED! that if we could learn practical Positive psychology strategies for boosting motivation, especially in the initiation phase of an action, you know, when you have the goal in mind but the behavior does not follow, then the world would be not incrementally but quantum leaps ahead.

Look at obesity, for example. Some say its a complex problem others claim its as easy as getting off the couch and eating 10 percent less Cheetos. We know for a fact that if you put zero effort into weight control, you probably will get whatever results your environment programs for you.

Aristotle said to be courageous do courageous acts. I believe in new behaviorism because I believe that the strengths are a cognitive behavioral repertoire of action tendencies, observable, measureable and increasable or decreasable. Yet still the question of applied motivation psychology tasks me.

How do you get the lazy chicken to cross the damn road?

Senia 20 June 2007 - 1:42 am

Dave, I don’t quite agree with you. Yes, ABCDE is created for the D part (disputing) to dispute the B part (belief). But that doesn’t mean that ABCDE can’t be used to get out of a bad mood. In fact, I think it’s extremely effective for getting out of a bad mood.

In a way, a bad mood can be a grouping of uncomfortable emotions (and emotions are part of the C (consequences)). Additionally, we know that often B’s and C’s are related to each other. So by disputing “I’m sad because no one wants to hang out with me,” yes, I agree, logically you are disputing the “no one wants to hang out with me,” the belief (B). But on the other hand, you’re affecting how you feel, so you are affecting the consequence (C) after all.


Kathryn Britton 20 June 2007 - 9:10 am

Interesting discussion!

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jeff’s disputation of my earlier suggestions to step back and watch some of the negative emotions go by.

Jeff, you seemed to interpret that as advice to just accept problems and let them passively work out.

That’s not at all what I meant. I was responding to your earlier statement about having so many negative thoughts that disputing them got tiring. So I was thinking that you need to be selective about which negative thoughts to dispute and let the rest just float downstream, separating yourself from them and looking at them with interest.

I think the above is one way to improve moods. Figure out which negative thoughts are worth the energy to dispute, and then spend as little mental energy on the rest as you can.

Will that get rid of bad moods? Not entirely. But if I can separate myself even slightly from a bad mood — tell myself that it is chemistry or sleep-deprivation or hormones — then I can keep myself from feeling defined by the mood. I know that all my moods, including this bad one, are self-limiting. That doesn’t mean passively letting problems work themselves out. It means not investing any more energy into a bad mood than necessary.

So I agree with Dave that it is important to understand and perhaps take care of the physical determinants of bad moods. Parents learn this with small children. Women learn it with their monthly cycles. Oh that’s why I’m being so cranky!

When not in a bad mood, I try to build up psychological capital — friendships, gratitude, flow experiences — that I can throw into the balance when the next bad mood comes around.

I don’t think positive psychology gives us “Get out of jail free” cards! We have to face the range of human emotions, bad and good. One question is how much we are controlled by them versus how much we control them. I think positive psychology has a number of means for causing better moods, but perhaps first we have to loosen the grip of bad moods by not feeling they control us entirely.

Does that take the discussion forward at all?


Jeff Dustin 20 June 2007 - 4:37 pm


Can I call you Kat? Less letters, u can call me jef 😛

You are a magnificent observer of human nature and debate!

Like most arguments, both sides typically share a common ground. You’ve just highlighted the key points we have in agreement and it turns out the dispute was a misunderstanding on my part. I was seeing what u said as a sort of Eastern go with the flow spin on life’s problems.

Let me give one example of a problem that caused me much grief and if you like you could offer a PP solution or strategy? Want to have a go?

My wife just interviewed first with a principal of a local high school and then with a superintendent for her second year as a guidance counselor. The first interview with the principal went smashingly, they all got along well and all went smoothly. The principal recommended her to the super. The super interview went disastrously. The super acted as if she herself was from another planet and very pessimistically and even *gasp* nitpicky and belligerently.

When my wife would say north, the super would say, no south is a better direction. On and on it went. My wife is quite nervous about this b/c she’s been to six interviews, no joy yet. So she was angry b/c she felt jerked around.

Is this a belief worth disputing? How does disputation contribute to solving our employment problem?

Kathryn Britton 21 June 2007 - 9:58 am

Jef, Your challenge is a great chance to talk about fuzzy meaning versus fuzzy knowledge, one of my favorite ideas from PP.

(You can call me Kat, or K if it is unambiguous.)

Sandra Schneider wrote a great article about Realistic Optimism. People have been arguing for years about whether optimists are less realistic than pessimists. She addresses this question by dividing up reality into two categories where fuzziness can exist:

  • Fuzzy knowledge, which arises from factual uncertainty — you just don’t have enough information. Someone has just had unprotected sex. Have they or have they not become HIV positive? Some studies show that optimists are more likely than pessimists to take the appropriate tests to find out (but that’s side issue here.)
  • Fuzzy meaning, which arises from interpretive latitude. Realistic optimists tend to select interpretations on the positive side. (I talked about this a bit in my last posting on reframing.)

So in this situation, your wife observed the behavior of the superintendent, but she doesn’t really know what it means. Here are some possibilities:

  • He figured that many of her clients will be nitpicky and belligerent, so he wanted to see how she would react to that kind of behavior. I’ve heard interviewers say they ask questions they know the person won’t be able to answer in order to see how they handle the uncertainty.
  • He had an argument with someone in his family this morning that left him disgruntled.
  • Your wife reminds him of someone who tends to evoke this kind of behavior in him.
  • He treats everybody that way.
  • He was busy with something else and wanted to get the interview out of the way quickly, so he wasn’t taking care with his manner.
  • He decided early that your wife was wrong for the job and wanted to provoke her.

And so on, and so on. She just doesn’t know what his behavior in that interview means. So a realistic optimist selects an interpretation that leaves her in the best possible psychological state. That doesn’t mean making up facts — just how she thinks about what it means. Anger, while understandable, doesn’t hurt him and can hurt her by taking away energy and making her feel powerless.

So here’s the form of disputing I’d use.  Make up different interpretations — from the sublime to the ridiculous (you could have fun with that) — and then consciously choose one that leaves her in the best spot for whatever comes next — this job or yet more interviews.  The factual uncertainty (will she or won’t she get an offer) will eventually be resolved. So the only way that this helps with your employment problem is by keeping your wife’s energies and self-efficacy solid in the face of a negative resolution and by helping her be able to work in his domain if there’s a positive resolution. PP doesn’t change the facts.

That help at all?

Schneider, S. (2001).  In search of realistic optimism:  Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness.  American Psychologist, 56(3), 250-263.

Jeff Dustin 21 June 2007 - 4:58 pm


Very much, tks



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