Have you ever thought about how the way you explain things in your life can affect your happiness? According to Abraham Lincoln, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the power of your explanatory style to transform your life for the better. Your explanatory style is how you tend to explain outcomes or results in your life, and it can either be optimistic or pessimistic. In this article, we will discuss how to shift your explanatory style towards positivity to lead a happier and healthier life.

What is an Explanatory Style?

Explanatory style is how you tend to explain the outcomes or results that happen in your life. It includes the meaning you make of things and your self-talk, which is what you think about yourself in response to events. This style can be either optimistic, pessimistic, or depressive and you may have a mixture of these styles.

Optimistic vs Pessimistic Explanatory Style

Let’s look in more detail at the three explanatory styles. The optimistic style sees positive outcomes as personal/internal, permanent/stable, pervasive/global and negative outcomes as personal/external, permanent/unstable and pervasive/specific. The pessimistic style is linked to clinical depression. It sees negative outcomes as personal/internal, permanent/stable and pervasive/global, and positive outcomes are seen as personal/external, permanent/unstable and pervasive/specific.

See diagram below for a clarification on these and then we’ll cover more specific examples below:

Personal, Permanent, Pervasive

Let’s consider how the classic pessimistic explanatory style tends to see negative outcomes as “my fault” or “I am to blame when things go wrong” (personal/internal). But when things go well, the depressive style externalises the good. They might say “It was easy, any idiot could have passed” or that good outcome “had nothing to do with me” (personal/external). They will also see failure as permanent/stable: “I’m stupid and that won’t ever change” or “My father was right, I am worthless.” On the other hand success will be viewed as permanent/unstable: “Oh, I was just lucky. It was a fluke.”

Not only that, but those with severe and long-standing depression have a tendency to assume that negative events and failure “are my lot in life” or pervasive/global, for example: “I never do well in job interviews and I will never get this job”, “No one has ever loved me, and they never will” or “Nothing goes right for me ever.” But when they have some success, they explain things with permanent/specific thoughts, such as: “All I’m good for is that one small thing” or “Big deal, the rest of my life is still crappy.”

This is an extremely pessimistic approach to life and it’s summarised in the tabled below.


Positive Outcome – Dismiss As

Negative Outcome – Accept As



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


Failure is due to internal factors
It’s all my fault this has happened
If only I wasn’t such a bad person



Success does not last
I fluked it this time; It’s just a once-off win
I won’t be this lucky again


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



Success is limited
All I’m good for is this one thing
Big deal, the rest of my life still sucks


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

The Impact of Explanatory Style on Your Life

Your explanatory style has a significant impact on your life. The pessimistic style is linked to reduced immunity, higher morbidity, poor self-esteem, and an inability to solve problems effectively. On the other hand, an optimistic style is linked to better physical and psychological health, as well as better problem-solving skills. Therefore, changing your explanatory style can improve your happiness and overall well-being.

How Explanatory Style Affects Your Mood

Your explanatory style affects your mood by shaping how you perceive the world around you. Pessimistic explanatory styles tend to see negative outcomes as their fault and blame themselves, while externalizing positive outcomes. This is an extremely pessimistic approach to life that can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. However, you can improve your explanatory style by recognizing these patterns and taking steps to shift them.

Shifting Your Explanatory Style

To shift your explanatory style, you must first recognise the style you currently use. Then, you can take steps to change it by shifting negative thoughts to positive ones, questioning negative assumptions, and reframing negative events in a positive light. You can also cultivate positive self-talk by focusing on your strengths and achievements.


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!


Your explanatory style can have a profound impact on your life. By shifting from a pessimistic to an optimistic style, you can improve your physical and psychological health, as well as your problem-solving skills. Recognising your negative patterns and taking steps to shift them can help you lead a happier and healthier life. Remember, you have the power to control your thoughts and beliefs, so choose to explain things in a way that serves you positively. If you find yourself struggling with pessimism or depressive thinking, then consider attending a series of CBT-focused counselling, to help you straighten out those unhelpful thinking styles.

If you would like some homework then over the next week or two, just try to be mindful of the way you explain events to yourself and notice if you tend to be more positive or negative. Perhaps keep track by writing down what thoughts your mind produces straight after any significant good/bad events. Or observe how you “explain” such events to others in your life. Jot down those examples and bring them to counselling.

Warm wishes,