Monday, March 22, 2010

Optimism Test: Part One

Some months ago my good friend Mark K was very engaged in his reading of (i.e., listening to) Martin Seligman who has a long background in positive psychology.

I finally got the CD, Learned Optimism, that included an evaluation of your optimism profile.

The test is very simple and can be found on the Internet at Optimism Test.

The survey basically asks you about how you respond to good and bad events (or stimuli), and then measures the degree of pervasiveness, permanence and personalization of your beliefs. The pervasiveness, permanence and personal nature of beliefs correlates directly to your level of optimism.

The permanence of a belief has to do with how long you believe something will last. When you get sick, do you feel as though you'll never get well (permanent) or do you feel as though it will be over quickly (not permanent)? If you get fired, do you believe that you'll never find a job or that you'll get a job quickly? If someone says they love you, do you see that as a forever statement or as something that needs to be reinforced frequently? These are examples used to measure permanence.

Optimistic people tend to ascribe little permanence to negative (unhappiness-fueling) beliefs and situations, and significant permanence to positive (happiness-fueling) situations of beliefs. I tend to see bad events as something that will pass (which gives me a high score on the bad-permanence factor). However, I also see many good events as something that will end some time (which gives me a low score on the good-permanence factor).

So I started to question myself: do I believe that I can change so I keep seeing bad events as temporary, whereas I prolong the expected duration of good events?

According to Mr. Seligman, the practical reason for doing this is that, if we believe that a bad event is temporary, we tend to do something to change it, whereas, if a good event is seen as temporary we tend to not do anything to keep it.

It did sound somewhat funny to me: if love is lasting forever, does that make me do more to keep it alive? What if love is temporary, but something I and other people can keep choosing? Wouldn't I then do more to make it possible? So, I decided that most events (good and bad) are temporary, but I can work on making them appear more frequently if I want to.

Pervasiveness is the measure for how universal things are. Do they show up everywhere all the time, or, do they just show up here and there independently of one another.

Again the test said that I was more optimistic regarding the bad events than the good events.

This time I chose to not believe in the test. I actually think that at times I am very pessimistic about bad events. A few bad events can drain my energy and 'make' me think that life in general is challenging and difficult whereas a few good events will fill me with energy.

I guess that the reason for my test results is that I tend to have just a few areas of focus in my life and they are always intertwined. For a while, I have focused on my health and my work. When something affects my health, it also affects my performance at work. When I felt stressed at work, it affects my health. Since these are my main areas of focus, I tend to see them as my whole world. So, when these are affected, I see the events as universal.

If the test were questioning anything that were not work or health related, I would give an answer reflecting my beliefs that one event did not relate to another. I can see how it could be useful for me to not bundle everything together and to have a broader and more independent perspective. For me solution is simple: meditation.

When I meditate I get a lot of energy, and I also experience everything being one and yet separate. This means I can choose for myself which events to treat separately (i.e., the bad events) and which to treat together (i.e., good events).

Personalization is about attribution, i.e., who is to blame. If you want to be less optimistic, then all you have to do is personalize 'bad' events and not personalize 'good' events. For example, if you were to lose your job, you could decide a) I got fired because I did a bad job (personal), or b) I got fired because there was a financial crisis (not personal).

During a good event, you are going to be more optimistic if you believe that you caused or influenced it, e.g., our project was a success because I did a good job (not because the team was fantastic or not only because the team was fantastic).

Seeing this definition, I decided that I would like to be moderately optimistic regarding bad events. I would like to see the event as something that just happened AND as something that I could influence. Say, I just got fired; I would like to tell myself both that the job wasn't a good match for me (not personal) and that I could do a better job in choosing my next position (personal).

Some of the Questions

Since I told you in Optimism Test: Part Two that my friends didn't like the questions, I'll now go over a few of them:
13. You owe the library $10 for an overdue book
a) When I am really involved in reading I often forget when it's due
b) I was so involved in writing the report that I forgot to return the book
This question is about permanence. Is it something that I always do or was it an independent specific event?
17. You prepared a special meal for a friend and he/she barely touched it
a) I wasn't a good cook
b) I made the meal in a rush
This question is about pervasiveness. Am I just generally a bad cook (pervasive) or did I just not cook well this time (not pervasive)?
47. You are in the hospital and few people come to visit
a) I am irritable when I am sick
b) My friends are negligent about things like that
This question is a about personalization. Did your friends not visit you because of something that you did (personal) or did they not visit you because of something that they did (not personal).

My Answers
I'll start by pointing out that the questions we are discussing are all about bad events... I also want to point out that it doesn't matter whether or not the answers are not exactly what you would do. The question would be one of which answer is closer to how you would respond. As I mentioned in Optimism Test: Part Two, I didn't find these answers particularly relevant to me, but I did answer them anyway.

Question 13: The Library Book
Personally, I haven't turned a book in late since I was 18, but if I had an overdue library book, the reason would be that something specific came up.

Question 17: Grumpy in the Hospital
I've been in a hospital only once and I didn't stay overnight. Only two people showed up, but only three people knew that I was there. I believe that if someone didn't turn up at the hospital it would be for his or her own reasons, not because I was particularly grumpy. I mean, how would they know that anyway, if they hadn't been there to see me?

Question 47: Cooking for a Friend
I rarely cook and when I do it is often done in a rush. From my perspective, if you are preparing a special meal, then it wouldn't be done in a rush. If so, would you still call it special? I believe that I myself and most other people can prepare a fantastic meal, when we take the time to do it.

So What?
Here's what I came away with for myself.
  1. Optimism and happiness are independent of each other. You can be completely happy, and yet not completely optimistic. You can also be completely optimistic (e.g., I know I can do this job) and completely unhappy (e.g., I hate this job).
  2. I don't want to be a complete optimist. For me, being a "moderate" optimist is more useful in most cases. I believe that this helps me prepare for and prevent bad events, without fearing that they are frequent, universal or everlasting.
  3. I would like to grow my belief that I can create possibilities for good events and that the good events will last. So, I will work on making good events more personal and more permanent.
  4. Recognizing my tendency to control my environments, I do realize it might be better for me to take some good things less personally. This is a bit opposite of what the Optimism Test would say. I believe to be completely optimistic, it's useful to believe that the universe will keep providing the good events and that there is nothing for me to control. So, I blame the universe for great events in my life.
What About You?
Although I don't agree with everything, I found Dr. Seligmen's book and the Optimism Test really insightful and useful. After the book and the test, there are several aspects of how I interact with the world that I am going to change. I'd like to invite you to read (or listen to) his book and certainly to take the Optimism Test to see what it tells you about yourself. If you do, I'd love to hear about what you learned? What did the test say about you? Did you agree or disagree? Why did you agree or disagree? Is there anything about yourself that you would change?

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