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Why optimism in the face of adversity?

by Heather Craig

Though there is currently no one accepted definition of what optimism and pessimism actually are, one theory refers to what Martin Seligman termed ‘explanatory style’. The reason an individual may face adversity with a sense of hope and optimism is closely related to the way in which they explain the hardship they face, or have faced in the past.

Think of a pessimist. One little way to remember a pessimist’s explanatory style is the ‘3 Ps’: the pessimism sees a problem as permanent, personal and pervasive. Let me explain how the pessimist reacts to adversity.

Imagine the pessimist loses their job. Their explanatory style leads them to conclude that:

  • they are unlikely to ever work again (the problem is permanent),
  • they are the only one of their business network to have lost their job (“why me?”, they ask), and
  • their life is in ruins; that is, not only have they lost their job but they then begin to think that their marriage is a failure, they’re broke, and their kids don’t like them much either.

The thing about failure, a common adversity in life, is that we as humans are destined to face it. Only the person who never does anything avoids mistakes!

When I consider hardship and adversity, what strikes me is that the key thing to remember is not what happens to us, but our attitude towards the inevitable difficulties and even trauma we may face. Not only this, but because the optimist believes that their goals are possible, the optimist then take the actions necessary to make seemingly unachievable dreams a reality.

A great example is Eddie Jaku – Holocaust survivor and author of an inspiring memoir “The Happiest Man on Earth”. Eddie survived the darkness of evil, and never lost sight of the fact that the future could be better.

I leave you, and myself, with something to consider: by reframing adversity as a temporary, albeit inevitable, challenge which one has the capacity to cope with, and overcome, does the optimist build even more resilience to bolster them in future?

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