The ABC technique for exercising optimism

The ABC technique for exercising optimism

According to popular culture, optimists are characterized by a positive vision of life, oriented towards the future, rather than the past; often optimistic people are imagined to be happier, more smiling, more joyful. But is it really so?

Giulia Marton and Laura Vergani – OPEN SCHOOL, Cognitive Psychotherapy and Research Milan

Advertising message This is how the poet, writer and screenwriter Tonino Guerra recited in a famous TV spot, giving voice to a phrase that would resound for years in every corner of Italy. Enter de facto into Italian popular culture, these seven words have become the motto of all those who love to see the glass half full. And if Tonino Guerra’s phrase is dated 2001, many others are the catchphrases and the characteristic characters symbol of optimism, of that lifestyle colored with positivity, which always hopes for the rainbow even when you are soaked in the rain.

Raise your hand if you have never found yourself whistling with Baloo and Mowgli the most famous song of the Jungle Book, by Walt Disney.

What is this song – sung in the tricolor version by Tony De Falco and Luigi Palma – if not an ode to optimism?

For many, however, the optimism will have the red hair and freckles of Pollyanna, the protagonist of the novel of the same name born from the pen of Eleanor Hodgman Porter and the basis for many film and cartoon transpositions. Or the white beard of Gongolo, the smiling and happy dwarf of Snow White, the sound of the “Salve salvino” by Ned Flanders from the Simpsons universe, or that of Pippo’s laughter, Mickey’s best smiling friend.

Still, lovers of the fantasy genre will remember the character of Sam, of the Lord of the Rings, or the advice given by Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter:

History buffs will appreciate the phrase attributed to Sir Winston Churchill:

While music lovers, at least once, will have hummed Don’t worry, be happy by Bobby McFerrin. Perhaps Einstein also preferred optimism; in a sentence attributed to him we read:

According to popular culture, therefore, optimists are characterized by a positive vision of life, oriented towards the future, rather than the past; often, then, we imagine optimistic people as happier, more smiling, more joyful.

But is it really so?

Do people with a higher level of optimism really have an edge in meeting the challenges of everyday life? Is optimism really the scent of life? And can you learn it?

Before trying to answer these questions, let’s take a step back to find out what optimism really is and to see if it matches what we imagine in popular culture.

Optimism is a personality trait.

In psychology, the study of personality has been a constant over the years, passing through different approaches, authors, theories. By borrowing the words of Roberts (2009), we can define personality as

Optimism is also part of these lasting thoughts, feelings and behaviors that characterize each individual. Precisely, understood as a personality trait, or disposition, optimism also takes the name of dispositional optimism.

The study of optimism as a personality trait has its roots only in the last decades, when, in fact, popular culture, on the one hand, and scientific research, on the other, began to be increasingly interested in characteristics and correlates hidden in the famous half-full glass.

Among the first to give a scientific definition are two American researchers, Micheal Scheier and Charles Carver. Today psychology professors respectively at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and at the University of Miami, in 1985 together wrote an article published in Health Psychology with the title Optimism, coping, and health: assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies (Scheier & Carver , 1985). In addition to discussing the psychometric properties of a scale designed to measure optimism, the two scholars gave a definition of dispositional optimism as

Dispositional optimism is therefore a stable trait of personality, capable of leading to a generalized expectation, that is, in different aspects of the individual’s life, of positive results. It is a definition in which it is possible to find some of the characteristics previously seen in popular culture of the half-full glass, and the color of positivity that characterizes the vision, in particular, of the future.

What effects can optimism have on our performance, on decision-making styles, on our health? Really not being blown down by the rain and looking forward to the beauty of the rainbow can have some advantages for our life?

There are numerous studies conducted on people with high – and low – levels of optimism and the correlates that this can have in daily life. For example, optimists perform better. But how?

Optimistic individuals – who, as mentioned earlier, expect a brighter future – are more persevering and persistent in achieving their goals and more easily accumulating resources over time. All this would facilitate better performance in different tasks.

Suzanne Segerstrom (2007), today a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, focused on the relationship between optimism and performance. 61 jurisprudence students were enrolled for a ten-year longitudinal study, with the aim of observing dispositional optimism, resources and performance. The result? The students who, in the first year of study, recorded higher levels of optimism were also those who, aged ten years, earned more money.

Advertising message Instead, an all-Italian research group has examined the relationship between optimism and decision-making styles: Magnano, from the Kore University of Enna, and Paolillo and Giacominelli – from the University of Verona. Dispositional optimism makes people more confident about solving a problem. So how do optimists make decisions? People with high levels of optimism, in general, present rational and logical decision styles, characterized by a strong ability to search for information, greater definition of objectives, greater planning of actions with definition of alternative plans. And who sees everything black? Lower levels of optimism, being associated with avoidant coping strategies, can lead to a more ineffective decision style,

Similar results were also found in a study conducted in Australia by Creed, Patton and Bartrum (2002). In particular, the three researchers from Griffith University -Creed and Bartrum- and Queensland University of Technology -Patton-, dealt with optimism, pessimism and professional choice. Still, is the half-full or half-empty glass capable of influencing the way we choose our professional future? The results showed that a high level of dispositional optimism is associated with better career planning; in addition, optimists are more focused on their goals. The pessimists, however, are more undecided and less aware of their possible choices.

But does optimism also have risks?

Indeed, some studies have shown a link between dispositional optimism and risk-taking. In the Gibson study (2004), people with a high level of dispositional optimism show that they have higher expectations of winning in gambling and continue to bet even after having recorded a negative result (Gibson & Sanbonmatsu, 2004).

As already mentioned above, and as explained also in an article published on State of Mind entitled Coping strategies and optimism – Psychology, individuals with high and low levels of optimism also differ in the use of coping strategies.

In fact, optimists are more inclined to use coping strategies, that is, proactive ways of dealing with problems. These strategies are implemented even before experiencing the stressful event. On the contrary, whoever sees the glass half empty tends to implement coping strategies focused on avoidance, that is, escape or avoidance of the stressful situation.

And what about physical health?

A link between optimism and visits to the doctor would seem to be characterized precisely by coping styles. Reckel and Wong in 1983 are among the first to propose a study in this regard. The sample? A group of elderly subjects, institutionalized and not. They were asked what events they expected in the near future. Two years later, the physical symptoms of some of them were also investigated. The result? The more optimistic elders reported fewer physical symptoms and also a better physical and psychological condition.

In short, optimisms and pessimists have different ways of approaching daily life. Faced with particular moments and difficult situations, the former would seem to find the necessary resources to face the failures, without giving up and with a brighter vision of the future.

Martin Seligman answered this question. Born in New York in 1942, Seligman is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has held the position of president of the American Psychological Association since 1998 and is now considered the founder of positive psychology and one of the most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century. Among his scientific production, there is also a book published in 1990, entitled Learning Optimism.

Optimism, therefore, can be learned and learned (Peters, Flink, Boersma, & Linton, 2010; Seligman, 1990) from all of us. Even by the most pessimistic. Everyone can learn to live in a more optimistic way, with all the necessary effects. That is, our choices, our quality of life and our physical health, could improve accordingly.

The discoveries of Seligman and other scholars in this area have had and are having enormous implications, also from a clinical point of view. But how do you think about the rainbow when you are in the rain?

One of the techniques described by Seligman for practicing positive thinking is the ABCD technique (Seligman, 1990). This technique is based on awareness of the development of one’s thoughts and the emotions that derive from it; it is divided into four sections, starting right from the, an event that happened in the here and now.

As described in an article previously published here on State of Mind, entitled ABC technique, the main steps of ABCD are described, which we report below.

After becoming aware of the link between uneasy emotions (C) and thoughts (B), the next step is simple. By changing ideas, you can also change your mood.

In the dispositional optimism exercise, Seligman (1990) explains these concepts as follows:

A – it is generally an adversity, any one even the simplest. However, it must be described impartially. Part of the examples proposed by Seligman are: a leaking tap, noticing the frown of a friend, a child who never stops crying, a big expense, a carelessness on the part of the partner.

B – these are the thoughts immediately after adversity, which represent the way in which the event is interpreted. Examples may be: “my friend is definitely angry with me” and “the tap is leaking because of me”.

C – are the consequences of thoughts; this section investigates how the subject felt, and what he did, as a consequence of thinking. Part of the examples he proposed are: “I had no energy”, “I did / excuse him”, “I went back to bed”.

D – is the dispute, seen as a remedy for the negative thoughts that accompany adversity. The role of the dispute is to question beliefs, that is, thoughts, B. This step can only take place following an awareness of the link between uneasy emotions (C) and thoughts (B). What is required of the individual is to challenge decisively the beliefs that follow adversity. Seligman, by setting the exercise on dispositional optimism, proposes four ways to make the disputes convincing:

The exercise set up by Seligman requires that the individual, once understood these concepts, take note on a sheet, for seven consecutive days, of the adversities he has faced during the day. Then, you need to fill in sections B and C linked to the initial A, being careful to look for the connection between thought and its consequence.

The subjects are therefore explained to pay attention to the fact that pessimistic explanations trigger passivity and discouragement, while optimistic explanations generate energy.

So what? We just have to try!