Research suggests “Explanatory style” changes the way we react to stress

Psychologist Timothy Wilson wrote in his book, Redirect, that positive thinking can only get you so far. He pointed out that homelessness, for example, cannot be cured by simply changing your thoughts. But a couple months after the book was released, he got an email from a woman who claimed he was wrong.

“I used to be homeless,” she wrote, “and it was all in my head.” She went on to tell him how she got her life back together by simply rethinking what was important to her.

Dale Carnegie, author of the best-selling book How To Win Friends and Influence People wrote, “Happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have; it depends solely upon what you think.”

In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

And thousands of years ago Confucius said, “Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.”
Wilson’s research suggests that the answer to changing our thoughts may lie in something called “explanatory style.” Say two students both did badly in a class last term, receiving a C or below. One student might explain this situation to himself by saying, “I’m stupid.” The other student may have a different narrative: “I didn’t study hard enough. I’m going to work harder next semester so I can get an A.” Researchers have found that it’s not really our situation that determines our future and well-being, it’s how we think about our experiences.

Explanatory style is central to positive thinking. Psychologists say that we all tell ourselves stories about our life experiences. Explanatory style refers to the narratives we tell ourselves about why things happen. There are two basic types of explanatory styles: optimistic and pessimistic.

Optimistic people tend to describe good events as caused by themselves, they think good events will last a long time and they also reason that good events in one area of their life mean other areas will be great too.

Pessimistic people explain the same event in a totally opposite way. They believe bad events are their fault, that they will last forever and that they will ruin every aspect of their life.

In my experience, gaining an objective view of your mind through meditation is the best way to change it. Research by Dr. Barbra Fredrickson shows that people who meditate every day experience more positive emotions than those who don’t. Meditation results in increased levels of mindfulness, social connection and life purpose. And meditation is simple and free! All you have to do is sit and be quiet. Just let the thoughts pass by as clouds or waves.

Nancy Cantor notes that, for some people, being strategically pessimistic actually helps them reduce levels of stress. Cantor developed Defensive Pessimism, a cognitive strategy in which people set low standards for themselves and envision how things could go wrong. Envisioning failure helps the defensive pessimist take steps to avoid it.

So whether you’re a strategic optimist or a defensive pessimist, it’s clear that what you think counts! The power of thought pervades every corner of our lives. Consider taking some steps to improve your thinking style. Try meditation to help change your explanatory style. You’ll feel better about life.