Argue Your Way to Optimism

ArgueYourWayToOptimism If you want to lead an optimistic life, learn to argue with yourself. The secret of optimism is not positive thinking. It’s non-negative thinking, according to Martin Seligman in the book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.  When bad things happen or when you face adversity, if you can argue effectively with your beliefs, you can lead yourself to hope and action instead of despair.

It surprised me, but it was also refreshing to learn that optimism is not about positivity. Another way to put it is, it’s your unchallenged thoughts that can lead to pessimism. I was also surprised by how amazingly simple the practice is to build an optimistic mindset. While I’m already an optimist, there’s always room for improvement, and I like the fact that this is a simple skill I can share with family and friends.

Know Your ABCs for Analyzing Your Thinking
According to Seligman, you can analyze your explanations of bad events using the ABC model. Let’s walk through the ABCs:

  • Adversity – This is the bad event or challenge you face.
  • Belief – This is your default thinking or belief about the bad event or challenge. It’s your explanation and interpretation of why things have gone wrong.
  • Consequences – This is the impact of your beliefs. It’s what you feel and what you do, as a result of your belief or interpretation of what happened.

A simple way to think of the ABC model is, what happened? … why do you think that happened? … and how does that make you feel and act, as a result?

Seligman refers to arguing with your thoughts as disputation. It’s the key practice for building your optimism. It works by countering your negative thoughts and rumination. To dispute your negative thoughts, you can practice with your ABCs.

To practice with your ABCs, identify the adversity, your belief and consequences. Next, dispute your beliefs. Notice how disputing your beliefs changes your consequences. For example, if you originally explained your adversity with beliefs that were permanent, personal, and pervasive, the consequences are you feel paralyzed and want to give up.

When you explain your beliefs in the opposite way, temporary, external, and specific, you create hope, which leads to action.

4 Ways to Improve your Disputation
According to Seligman, there are 4 ways you can dispute your beliefs more effectively:

  • Evidence – Ask yourself, “”What’s the evidence you have for and against the belief?”
  • Alternatives – Ask yourself, “Is there another way to look at the adversity?”
  • Implications – Ask yourself, “What’s the impact?”, assuming that your negative explanation is right. Check whether you are making mountains out of molehills.
  • Usefulness – Ask yourself, “Will thinking about the problem now, do any good?” If now is not the time, then either do something physically distracting, schedule a time to think things over, or write the negative thoughts down and deal with them when you’re ready.

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11 Comments on "Argue Your Way to Optimism"

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  1. We seems to be on the exact page again JD. It’s like we’re twins or something :) I love the ABC model. I use it for myself and with my clients, as a powerful method to create lasting changes in the way we react emotionally to various circumstances/ adversities. This tool is golden! I recommend everybody who read this article to go one step further and put it to use.


  2. Positively Present says:

    Love this!! I’ve never thought about dealing with optimism this way… so interesting! Another great insight, J.D.!

  3. Patricia says:

    Oh this is a good post to read today! Thank you. I think I was born an optimist, but my family went at me so hard about being so optimistic, when most of them were pessimists…that I joined forces. Someone said about me, that I always think I have to be stung by a bee before anything comes my way.

    I have been working on reverting myself back to my optimistic self…
    Very interesting outlook here and very good pointer….we can make change if we choose too…

  4. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. interesting take on being optimistic .. such a good idea that Martin Seligman is putting forward – argue with yourself. I think I’ve been analysing why things have happened and then adjusting to that thought process .. but actually arguing with myself towards optimism – I’ll give that a try.

    It’s good that you’re back with your incisive posts –
    thanks -Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  5. Hi JD,

    This is very interesting. I have always been an optimistic person and so it is fascinating to me to see the techniques that are suggested to help cultivate an optimistic point of view. Life is truly a matter of perception. Some people are born with the proper perception and others may have to work at it. The great thing is that we are capable of doing anything that we want, if we are willing to do the work.

  6. It’s funny how we create these beliefs and we think they are set, but they aren’t. We can recreate how we look and feel about a certain belief. I do believe that we have our core beliefs that help guide us, but even these beliefs can be bent every now and again. Hey if a good football game is one and a person wants to miss church to watch it this doesn’t make them a bad person. They can still celebrate God while watching football.

  7. JD says:

    @ Eduard

    It’s amazing how just tuning our thinking a bit, goes a long way. It’s the day to day that adds up.

    @ Positively Present

    I like the fact it’s simple, but effective.

    @ Patricia

    I think this tool will definitely help you unleash your inner-optimist. I’m optimistic on that :)

    @ Hilary

    Thank you. It’s really a great prescriptive way to train your thinking for more effective results.

    @ Nadia

    That’s a good way to put it. Our filters can either hurt us or help us. I like the fact you qualified with “if we are willing to do the work.”

    @ Karl

    It’s a great reminder that our beliefs can limit us or enable us, and that we’re ultimately responsible for our beliefs.

  8. Alik Levin | says:

    I liked 4 steps to improve. Most important i think is about evidence. I think these for can be simplified even more. I remember your post where you were asking “How it can be true?” – challenge the belief against the evidence.

  9. JD says:

    @ Alik

    Evidence really is the foundation. You can kick its tires and build better cases. When your evidence supports your claims, you’re kicking butt and taking names. (I made it a rhyme to make it easier to remember.)

  10. What an interesting twist. I’m often surprised how two approaches can seem the same yet actually operate so differently. Great post.

  11. Rob Boucher Jr says:

    I can certain attest to optimism being learned and about arguement with “automatic beliefs”. That’s what my whole life has been about.

    We come with default patterns that form like water running down a hill. They pick the path of least resistance based on our genetic tendencies, societal structures and upbringing. At some point we figure out that the default paths aren’t the most effective.

    This post seems a reframing of some of your other ones. For example, using the six thinking hats helps to see a belief from different perspectives. It’s all about being aware and then actively choosing thought patterns that are the most effective from a feeling and results point of view.

    The Usefulness point is a lot about looking at the past, present and future. If it’s something out in the future and you can’t do anything about it, thinking about it now is wasted energy. Worrying is having the impression that thinking about the problem somehow lessens it.

    Good frame.