03/04/2015 09:58 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

Why Choosing Optimism Helps You Bounce Back


When I was going through a series of difficult events in my life, a dear friend sent me a greeting card that I have kept on my desk ever since. It reads, "Life is not about how fast you run or how high you climb, but how well you bounce." Some have suggested that happiness isn't the opposite of depression; resilience is. It's the ability, as James Brown sang, to "Get On Up," again and again. In effect, to learn how to keep bouncing when life tends to keep trouncing.

In his book, The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure, and Bounce Back From Setbacks, author Al Siebert, Ph.D. explains that the same characteristics that make up resiliency are also traits that enrich our lives. These include the ability to stay flexible when adversity hits and the willingness to adapt. Most important, resiliency includes a confidence in one's ability to bounce back. Siebert believes that stress-resistant hardiness can be learned.

In her book, Positivity, author Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., identifies positive, resilient individuals as those who are able to tolerate both positive and negative emotions, even during challenging situations. When something negative occurs, while not denying the situation, these individuals look for something to be redeemed in the midst of the difficulty. She believes that they employ two psychological resources that we can all cultivate: optimism and resiliency. "Thinking patterns," she writes "trigger emotional patterns. Sometimes what we need to do is curtail our negative thinking."

We can intercept our patterns of negative self-talk -- automatic beliefs we repeat to ourselves that undermine our confidence. We can train ourselves in the opposite direction. This will involve noticing and taking stock of what we get right and what others get right in any given day. When this impressive inventory is neglected, our myopic focus centers on only the negatives.

Psychologist Martin Seligman, an expert on motivation and resiliency, is the author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (1990) and more recently, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (2011). He proposes that we don't need an innate, perky disposition in order to cultivate resilience and well-being. Like Fredrickson, he believes it's all about having strategies. He teaches the ABC (Adversity, Beliefs and Consequences) Model of responding to adversity. In this model, it isn't the adversity alone that determines our emotions, but rather the beliefs we hold about the adversity that cause the consequent feelings. This model instills hope. We can learn how to separate what happens (the stimulus) from how we will respond (consequences) by redirecting our beliefs. Through changing what we think, we can perceive the situation in a new, more balanced and positive way.

Learning how to redirect our negative thoughts to more productive, positive ones will offset feelings of helplessness that can sometimes to depression. Seligman explained how he and his team studied the effects of resilient thinking. He writes: "We wanted to find out who never became helpless, so we looked systematically at the way that subjects interpreted bad events. We found that people who believe that the cause of setbacks is temporary, changeable and local do not become helpless. When subjected to inescapable noise in the lab or rejection in love, they think, 'It's going away quickly. I can do something about it and it's just this one situation.' These people bounce back quickly from setbacks. Conversely, the people who habitually think, 'It's going to last forever. It's going to undermine everything, and there's nothing I can do about it,' do become helpless. They do not bounce back from defeat very quickly."

Seligman feels unequivocally that we can learn to be more optimistic and more resilient. He believes that we can learn how to recognize and dispute negative beliefs by heading off our degrading self-talk at the pass. We can change what he refers to as our explanatory style: the manner in which we habitually explain to ourselves why events happen. We can explain it to ourselves, pessimistically, as permanent, personal and pervasive or optimistically, as temporary, general and surmountable.

We can learn to be positive, not through clichéd platitudes ("Just put on a happy face"), but by learning a new set of cognitive skills like the ABC's of adversity. The potential for life draining negativity lies within us, as does the potential for life giving positivity. Our previous, perhaps unproductive, habits of negative thinking need not be forever. One of the most life altering findings in psychology in the past 30 years is that an individual can choose the way they think.

Adversity is going to touch every human life. Falling down isn't the issue, getting back up, is. Developing optimism and resiliency isn't about feigning a facsimile of terminal perkiness and blind optimism. It's quite the opposite. It's having the courage to see and meet life exactly as it is. It's all about choosing to learn how to respond to each adversity with confidence, hope and renewed vigor.

When adversity hits, what has helped you to bounce back?

This article was originally published in Ornish Living