The way you explain the things that happen in your life has the power to alter your life for better or for worse. Being human means that we all face challenges and setbacks, and we all experience success and opportunity. However, the very same outcome has the potential to be “explained” in totally different ways by unique individuals. In addition, the explanations we make start to “flavour” our entire lives.
So, you might remember that last month I discussed how “what we appreciate, appreciates” or “what we focus on expands” – the more we look for the good in our life, the more we see it; the more we focus on what we want, the more likely we are to attract that thing to ourselves. In conclusion, how we focus our attention will shape the life we create.
Importantly, how we explain the results and outcomes in our lives is just one of the ways we focus our attention using our thoughts. And this month’s article will show you some simple strategies to shift the way you explain things so you can experience a better life.
What Is An Explanatory Style?
So what’s an Explanatory Style? Well, it’s simply your tendency to explain the outcomes or results that happen in your life in similar ways. Moreover, we tend to default to habitual ways of explaining things that happen.
For example, our explanatory style incorporates the meaning we make of things. For example, whether we see an outcome as good or bad. Furthermore, it includes our ‘self-talk’ about the things that happen, or what we think about our ‘self’ in response to things that occur. For example, I am stupid or brilliant.
To clarify, you can think about Explanatory Styles as a scale between two opposites; with an Optimistic approach on one end and a Pessimistic approach on the other end. However, you will not necessarily be purely optimistic or completely pessimistic – you are more like to have a mixture of both styles.
Certainly, it is quite possible that you have a tendency toward optimism in most parts of life, but be deeply pessimistic in a specific area.
Of course, the Explanatory Style you favour will have a big impact on all aspects of your life.
For instance, there is a third style worth knowing about which has been named the Depressive Explanatory Style. It’s closely related to the Pessimistic Style and has been found to correlate highly to Clinical Depression. A depressed mood is often the result of depressed thinking patterns.
Additionally, the Pessimistic Explanatory Style has been linked to a whole host of physical and psychological conditions, such as reduced immunity, higher morbidity (disease), poor self-esteem and an inability to solve problems (necessary for effective living effectively).
For that reason, changing your Explanatory Style will enable you to live a happier and healthier life.
Explanatory Styles and Your Mood
So, can you explain yourself happy?
You see one of the few things we can control is our thoughts and beliefs (beliefs are really just thoughts we think so often that we come to see them as truth).
Likewise, how you explain things to yourself will have a big impact on how you perceive the world around you, and on how you feel in the moment, not to mention on the choices you make in response to events.
Consequently, when your pattern of explaining things is pessimistic, you are more likely to experience one or all of the BIG 3 mental health issues: stress, anxiety and/or depression.
In short, consider how the classic depressive explanatory style tends to see negative outcomes as “my fault” or “I am to blame when things go wrong”. But when things go well, the depressive style externalises the good. For instance, by saying “Oh, I was just lucky. My actions had no impact on the outcome.” This is an extremely pessimistic approach to life.
Now, you hopefully are not completely pessimistic – but these thoughts can creep into anyone’s self-talk. That’s why it’s important to get clear on the Explanatory Style you currently use and to take steps to change your style towards something that protects you from the negative impacts of the pessimistic explanatory style.
To sum up, you can increase your happiness by shifting your habitual explanations.
How Explanatory Style Works
Psychological researchers first started talking about Explanatory Style back in the late 70’s. But we can go all the way back to 1958 to find the first discussions of “internal and external attributions” – which is another word for Explanatory Style. 
For instance, check out the diagram below. These are the three components of Explanatory Style, sometimes called the 3 P’s – Personal, Permanent and Pervasive – and we tend to place our explanations somewhere along these 3 polarities.
Now, the first way we tend to explain the results we get is to link them to Personal factors. Was the outcome influenced by things inherent to me or things external to me?
Additionally, we often explain the outcomes in terms of how Permanent they may be. And this can be broken down into the polarity of Stable vs Unstable. For example, do you think the outcome might be repeated in the future, will things stay the same, or can things change and be different?
Finally, there’s the third P – Pervasive: Do you tell yourself that the outcome or event will impact your entire life or only a small part of it?
Now, those who have a tendency to adopt a pessimistic style, will display the following patterns: Importantly, they will dismiss positive outcomes as External, Unstable and Specific. Meanwhile, on the flip side, they will accept negative outcomes as Internal, Stable and Global. Consequently, their mind consistently explains outcomes in the following ways:
|Pessimism||Positive Outcome – Dismiss As||Negative Outcome – Accept As|
|PERSONAL||External – Success is due to external factors outside my control|
I didn’t play a role in the outcome
It was an easy test, any idiot could have passed
|Internal – Failure is due to internal factors|
It’s all my fault this has happened
If only I wasn’t such a bad person
|PERMANENT||Unstable – Success does not last|
I fluked it this time; It’s just a once-off win
I won’t be this lucky again
|Stable – Failure due to enduring elements|
I ‘m stupid and incompetent and that’s never going to change
This just proves how worthless I am and will always be
|PERVASIVE||Specific – Success is limited|
All I’m good for is this one thing
Big deal, the rest of my life still sucks
|Global – Failure is my lot in life, I can’t stop it from happening|
I never do well at interviews
Nothing goes right for me ever
Some of the impacts of this habitual way of thinking include:
- Less hopeful about future
- More helpless and reactive
- Less motivation
- Expectations of failure
- Poor problem solving
- Low self-esteem
- Poor immune function
- High morbidity
Finally, a Pessimistic way of explaining outcomes can lead to learned helplessness, which occurs if someone is “…repeatedly exposed to unavoidable painful or otherwise negative stimuli, they will come to expect that such events are uncontrollable…”
Quite understandably, when someone feels that whatever they do will result in a negative outcome, they start to just give up on everything.
Someone who adopts a more optimistic approach will tend to explain events and outcomes in the following ways:
|OPTIMISM||Positive Outcome – Accept As||Negative Outcome – Dismiss As|
Success due to internal, inherent factors
I really worked hard and it paid off for me
My happiness is up to me
Failure due to external factors
I have done my best, this couldn’t have been avoided
It’s a really bad outcome, but the markets have played a big role
Success due to permanent, reliable factors
I’m always on the winning team
Good things will keep happening for me
Failure due to temporary factors
This too shall pass, these things happen from time to time
Just a minor setback, just a bad day or unlucky this time
Success due to pervasive circumstances
I always succeed regardless of the workplace
When one thing goes well, everything goes well for me
Failure due to isolated incident
I didn’t succeed because this work environment was not a good match
The rest of my life is awesome!
The Optimistic Explanatory Style tends to result in:
- Increased confidence
- Higher self-esteem
- Greater happiness
- Longer life span
- More motivation
- Proactive approach to problems
- Action taking
- Better health and relationships
- Feeling more empowered
- More hopeful about future
- Resilience in face of adversity
A great way to start to work on this yourself is to make list of all the pessimistic thoughts you think. You can do this by creating a note in your phone, or in a notepad, and then choosing a day or block of time to pay attention to your thinking. Write down what you notice, paying particular attention to times where you are responding to a negative or a positive outcome. In short, you want to capture how you explain those results to yourself.
Next you want to target all the Pessimistic thoughts…
Let’s write down a few examples of some pretty pessimistic thoughts:
– That was a complete disaster. I’m hopeless at everything.
– I haven’t reached my goal, and looks like I never will.
– I’m terrible at relationships. I’m just not loveable.
– I always let people down. I’m just no good.
– It was pure luck that I landed that job. They’ll probably fire me in a month.
– I never finish the things I start. Why do I even bother?
– Why do I always fall off the wagon? I’m completely useless.
– I probably won’t maintain the commitment. I should give up now.
Finally, once you have your list of 10-20 thoughts, you could try to write down some revised versions of your thoughts that are located more towards the optimistic end of the scale:
– My performance wasn’t great, but I can learn to get better, and there are things I am good at…
– I wasn’t taught the skills I need, but I can learn to do that with time and patience…
– It wasn’t just luck. Maybe luck played a role, but I also contributed by showing up and doing my best…I’m going to celebrate this win and focus on doing my best at this new role.
Now, you can see that I have kept these statements very realistic. I haven’t tried to overdo the positivity, and that’s because your brain might not believe you if you try to tell yourself “I’m great and I can do anything. Everyone will love me.”
In short, you need to gradually move yourself up the scale. Certainly, if you’ve a tendency to be pessimistic, your brain will not readily accept an overly positive statement – so start with something that feels both realistic and more optimistic of a good outcome.
The Turnaround Process
Additionally, another thing you can try if you find yourself thinking pessimistically, is the Byron Katie Turnaround Process. It’s a simple and fast approach to challenging pessimistic thinking. Just ask yourself the first 2 questions, and the final question if the first two don’t do the trick:
1. Firstly, is this true?
2. Secondly, is this absolutely true? (Like 100% of the time)
3. Finally, if it is absolutely true, then how can I turn things around?
Well, I hope this information has been helpful. Be mindful of your explanatory style and have a fantastic few weeks,
P.S. Questions, comments, personal stories – please share them below so we can all grow together.