How many times have you turned down an opportunity for fun with this response? “Sorry, but I have to work.”
“I have to work” can sound like “I have a requirement or a responsibility to work,” which may be true, but it also indicates that you have the opportunity to work. Lucky you! You get to work!
If you are unemployed and looking for a new job, the search process isn’t really much fun, even in a solid economy. In tough economic times it not only can be discouraging but also may set up pessimistic thinking patterns that can lead to future unhappiness. The good news is that Positive Psychology research can help you practice more optimistic thought patterns that help you deal resiliently with current reality.The Scarring and Scaring Hypotheses
In 2001, Andrew Clark and colleagues posed the scarring hypothesis, suggesting that past unemployment negatively impacts future well-being, despite what happens in a person’s future.
German researchers Andreas Knabe and Steffen Rätzel, however, have linked well-being following unemployment not to thoughts about the past but to the anticipation of negative future events— specifically, fear and anxiety about the specter of future unemployment. They cleverly call this the scaring hypothesis.
The Confirmation Bias and Learned Helplessness
The confirmation bias is our tendency to match up occurrences and our interpretations about them with our existing expectations, be they optimistic or pessimistic. Knabe and Rätzel claim that because of fear of future unemployment, even currently employed people will have lower life satisfaction if their employment is not secure and unemployment seems to loom in their futures. However, if people anticipate that desirable reemployment is likely, the expectation of future unemployment does not reduce subjective well-being. In other words, people that explain current or future unemployment as coming from causes that are temporary and within their control will be much less likely to be unhappy during the job search.
According to Seligman’s Learned Helplessness model, the learned tendency to perceive that one has no control over bad events can reduce the positive motivational beliefs and thoughts necessary for making more proactive choices—just the things that a job searcher needs.Explanatory Styles
To counter Learned Helplessness and the associated negative explanatory style, a person needs to believe that the acquisition of a future job is not tied to problems that are
- Personal (“It’s something wrong with me.”)
- Permanent (“It’s never going away.”)
- Pervasive (“It affects everything in my life.”)
Viewing the job search and acquisition process as out of one’s control is consistent with a negative explanatory style. Negative explanatory style is a learned, habitual way to explain causes of bad events. It predicts depression, poor physical health and mortality, and poor achievement. It is a risk factor for depression when bad events are encountered in the future. Moreover, pessimistic explanatory style leads to poor productivity and giving up when negative events (like losing one’s job) are experienced.
Negative explanatory styles can continue even when good events occur. People with negative explanatory styles tend to explain good events as temporary, limited, and unrelated to their own contributions. When a job offer is finally acquired, it may seem like a temporary rather than permanent good event, and because of its apparent random nature, the pessimist will be waiting for the next pink slip.
Avoid the Helplessness TrapSeligman reminds us: “Stable or unstable, global or specific, …internal or external. The attribution chosen influences whether expectation or future helplessness will be chronic or acute, broad or narrow, and whether helplessness will lower self-esteem or not.” An undesirable side effect of expecting future failure is a decreased belief in personal competence which is then easily reinforced via the confirmation bias.
Here are three things you can do to become less scared, more optimistic, more resilient and happier while you work, either at a job or at getting one. Even if you do become unemployed again, you will need hope, optimism, and resilience to take effective action. Each item links to another PPND article that may give you more ideas to support future well-being. Versions of some of these articles appear in the PPND book on Resilience.
- Collect positive evidence and reframe reality. Example: Lots of people are currently employed, far more than are not. Even if you need to temporarily take a job which is not ideal, you can still work at something until things improve.
- Learn to dispute negative thoughts by coming up with positive true alternative ones that help you get a new perspective. Tune out and turn off the employment forecast and unemployment news. Focus on the experience and accomplishments that have worked for you in the past, not the temporary reality that you are currently unemployed.
- Remember that other people matter. Network like crazy. Let people help you. They’ll feel better and so will you. Be sure to offer expressions of gratitude to anyone who helps. And avoid nay-sayers, wet blankets and those who would have you ruminate about your bad fortune.
Clark, A., Georgellis, Y., & Sanfey, P. (1999). Scarring: The psychological impact of past unemployment. Studies in Economics 9903
Knabe, A & Rätzel, S. (2008). Scarring or scaring? The psychological impact of past unemployment and future unemployment risk. Economica, no. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0335.2009.00816.x.
Maymin, S. & Britton, K. (2009). Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves. Positive Psychology News.
Peterson, C., Maier, S. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Freeman.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.