The health benefits of alcohol are hotly debated. The evidence supporting the medicinal properties of wine isn’t quite as compelling as I’d like – but for once I’m not thinking about how full my wine glass is – I’m pondering the metaphorical glass half full versus glass half empty question.
The expression ‘glass half full’ is used colloquially to refer to an optimistic outlook.
In psychological terms the term optimism has a specific meaning. It describes how someone typically explains good and bad events.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
An optimistic person typically explains good events as being personal, permanent and pervasive (sometimes known as the 3Ps). A pessimistic person typically explains bad events as being personal, permanent and pervasive.
For example if an optimist is promoted at work he/she might think “It’s not surprising I was promoted – I’m highly competent (personal) in all I do (pervasive) and I always do a great job (permanent)”
On the other hand a pessimist would be inclined to think “I got lucky just this once. Probably none of my other colleagues wanted the role”
The pessimist takes little personal credit for good events and tends to assume that they are temporary and specific.
When something bad happens an optimist will typically cite external factors rather than personal factors as the causes and will assume that the event is temporary and specific. For example if an optimist flunks an important interview, he / she might say “Well, I did have the slot just before lunch so the interviewers were tired – and they asked tough questions. I usually do fine at interviews so if I prepare a little more I’ll do better next time.”
In contrast a pessimist’s internal dialogue following the same interview experience might run something like this “I was rubbish. I can’t believe I’m such an idiot. I’m always terrible at interviews so I don’t know how I’m ever going to get a job”
This means that the optimist tends to fare better with failures/rejections than the pessimist. Because the optimist takes personal credit for good events he/she believes that he/she can take control over whether or not good things happen. The fact that optimists tend to view negative events as being specific and temporary mean that they are more likely to have another go at something when they fail – or try a different approach to get the outcome they want.
You may have a strong sense of where you fall on the optimist / pessimist spectrum just from reading the last few paragraphs but if you are interested in doing a more structured assessment you can take a test here.
Why does it matter?
So why is a GP and health coach blogging about half full and half empty glasses?
Well – in a nutshell because a half full glass can help to buffer against a number of diseases. And whilst changing a half empty glass into a half full one is not quite as quick and easy as having a vaccination – it is possible – and it doesn’t hurt!
Studies have shown that optimism is a significant health asset. Overall, optimists live longer than pessimists and they have lower risk of cardiovascular disease and depression. When disease does strike optimism is associated with a lower risk of re-hospitalisation following coronary artery by-pass grafting; better psychological well–being after treatment for early breast cancer and longer mean survival in patients with some types of lung cancer and head and neck cancer.
Since optimists typically believe that their own actions influence the events that happen to them they are often better at following medical advice and adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as regular exercise.
Blaming oneself for bad events (personalisation) and a sense of no hope for the future (permanence) are features of a pessimistic explanatory style and also recognised features of depression. We don’t fully understand all the mechanisms that lead to depression and of course it’s very difficult to separate the chicken from the egg – does pessimism cause depression or does depression cause a pessimistic thinking pattern?
However, I’m not sure that in practice it really matters too much whether a pessimistic thinking pattern is a cause or effect of depression – changing the thinking pattern can help people with depression to feel better. This is the basis of a recognised treatment of depression called cognitive behavioural therapy.
Although it may not necessarily be the case that an optimistic thinking style will prevent depression – someone with this explanatory style (either by nature or design) is already a little ahead of someone with a pessimistic style on the road to recovery.
How can you make your glass half full?
Step 1: Notice your current thinking patterns
The first step is simply to recognise your current thinking patterns. The way we think is often a habit and therefore we are not always particularly conscious of the things we say to ourselves.
Take some time each day to review anything negative that has happened. Ask yourself why the negative even occurred and write down your reasons.
I was late for work:
This happened because I am completely disorganised. The children always play up in the mornings and I never seem to be able to get them to focus on getting dressed. It’s always chaos whenever I have to get everyone out of the house at the same time and it’s a standing joke amongst all my friends that I’m always late for everything.
Step 2: Check for the 3Ps (Personal, Permanent and Pervasive)
Look at the answers and note whether your explanation is personal (i.e. you were responsible for the misfortune) permanent (the bad thing is going to last) and pervasive (it applies to many areas of your life).
This explanation contains reasons that are personal (I am disorganised); permanent (the words always and never appear often e.g. I never seem to be able to get them to focus on getting dressed) and pervasive (I’m always late for everything). This explanation suggests that there is nothing within the writer’s control that could change the situation and therefore does not inspire much hope for the future.
Step 3: Dispute the statements
Having identified any personal, permanent or pervasive elements within the explanation the next step is to check that the statements you have written would stand up in court beyond all reasonable doubt.
Let’s take the first statement ‘I am completely disorganised’
This is a personal statement. Typically we think things about ourselves that we would never tolerate someone else saying about us.
A quick way to dispute a personal statement is to imagine that someone you have never met has just made that statement about you.
If a complete stranger came up to you and said ‘you are completely disorganised’ how would you respond?
The likelihood is you would be mildly affronted and would instantly be able to think of reasons why this isn’t true. For example you might say that although it is true that you can struggle to be organised with the children in the mornings, once you get to work you do a really efficient job of running the office. You might also point out that you are brilliant at remembering people’s birthdays and that you manage to organise an extended family get together every Christmas.
The statement ‘I never seem to be able to get them to focus on getting dressed’ is permanent.
A quick way to dispute this is to ask yourself ‘when has this not been true?’
You might recognise that whilst the children don’t seem to focus on getting dressed when you are in hurry and bark commands at them, you have no problems when getting dressed is part of a game.
The statement ‘I’m always late for everything’ is pervasive. Pervasive statements can be challenged by asking yourself in which area of life this is not true.
You might realise that whilst you are often late for social engagements you have never missed a plane flight or an important work deadline. When it really matters you can be on time.
Step 4: re-write the explanation
Having disputed the statements you made see if you can write an alternative explanation that is less personal, pervasive and permanent.
I was late for work:
This happened because I had a lot to organise this morning and I underestimated the time it would take. I became stressed out with the children which meant that they didn’t co-operate as much as normal. I am able to be organised and punctual in other areas of my life and in future I can use some of the same tactics to make sure mornings at home go more smoothly. Specifically I can get up 10 minutes earlier; make the packed lunches the night before and encourage the children to race each other to get dressed to make it more fun.
This explanation is less personal because it acknowledges external factors that contributed to the situation (I had a lot to organise). It is less pervasive (I am able to be organised in other areas of my life) and less permanent (In future I can use some of the same tactics to make sure mornings go more smoothly)
Step 5: Another 3 Ps – practice, practice and practice
As mentioned earlier our thinking patterns are often habitual. They won’t change overnight. Sometimes the support of someone else can be beneficial. Perhaps you have a partner or close friend who can help you – or you might like to work with a coach.
With time and practice, eventually a more optimistic explanatory style will become automatic.
So ladies and gentlemen please ensure your glasses are at least half – full and raise a toast to your very good health!