Rate YOUR Three Dimensions of Optimism - Goodlife Zen

Rate YOUR Three Dimensions of Optimism

By Mary Jaksch

When there’s a small blue slice of sky on a rainy day – do you immediately think that the weather’s about to clear up? Or do you think that it’s likely that the rain will persist?

Optimists think that difficult times will be short-lived. Whereas pessimist will tend to think that bad events will last a long time. But that’s not all. There are three crucial dimensions of optimism according to Prof. Martin Seligman:  Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization.

In his book,  Learned Optimism Martin Seligman explains that it’s all about our habitual ways of explaining good and bad events to ourselves.

I’m particularly interested in his research because it ties in with my experience that we tend to think in stories, and the habitual stories we tell ourselves make the difference between happiness and suffering.


Let’s take a look at how optimists and pessimists respond to bad events.

Pessimists believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent. Optimists believe the cause is temporary. Here are some examples from Martin Feldman’s bestseller Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Diets never work Diets don’t work when you eat out
The boss is a bastard The boss is in a bad mood

In contrast, good events are seen as temporary by pessimists and permanent by optimists. Here is how that plays out:

It’s my lucky day I’m always lucky
I tried hard I’m talented

As Seligman says:

People who believe good events have permanent causes try even harder after they succeed. People who see temporary reasons for good events may give up when they succeed, believing success was a fluke.
Permanence is about time. The second of the three aspects of optimism is about space.


Consider this example:

John and Hayden, both employees of the an advertising agency got fired on the same day. Both became depressed and found it difficult to apply for other jobs. But there was a significant difference. Joohn kept his ordinary life going. He met up regularly with his friends, he was a loving partner to his girlfriend, and kept up his regular running training.

Hayden, on the other hand, fell apart. He became withdrawn, and stopped exercising, the relationship with his wife soured, and his health suffered.

The reason for the difference is this:

Pessimists make universal explanations for their failures and then give up on everything. They are catastrophizers.

In contrast, optimists make specific explanations of for failure. And, whilst they might feel down about that particular failure, they tend to be able to continue strongly in other areas of their life. Here are two examples of how bad fortune is interpreted differently by catastrophizers and optimists:

UNIVERSAL (Pessimist) SPECIFIC (Optimist
All teachers are unfair Mr. Beckman is unfair
Nobody likes me John doesn’t like me

The opposite happens when good fortune befalls us. A pessimist thinks that good fortune is due to specific, and not universal causes. Here are examples:

SPECIFIC (Pessimist) UNIVERSAL (Optimist
I’m smart at math I’m smart
I enjoy helping them I care about people

The Stuff of Hope

You can see quite easily how the two aspects of optimism, permanence and pervasiveness work together to create hope or despair.

Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of  hope.
Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.

There is a third aspect that is important in creating optimism.


When bad things happen, we either blame ourselves (internalize) or other people or circumstances (externalize). Seligman explains that people who blame themselves when they fail suffer from low self-esteem as a consequence.

The flipside of externalizing blame is that it’s important to take personal responsibility for our actions, in order to change.

Can develop optimism?

According to Seligman,  we can learn to be more optimistic. That’s important is because research has shown that optimists have a significant advantage, compared with pessimists. Optimists do better at school, at work, or on the playing field. Their health is usually better and they are happier. Evidence even suggests that they live longer.

Because pessimism is a deeply ingrained habit of seeing the world, change can only come about through learning new thought habits, and not through simplistic strategies, such as repeating affirmations or playing happy music.

I’m an optimist. At least, I thought I was. Then I did Seligman’s Optimism Test which measures Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization. I got only 5 out of 8 possible points. What that tells me is that I’m more pessimistic than I’m aware of – especially in regards to Permanence. I want to change that.

Would you like to join me for an experiment?

I suggest keeping an Optimism Journal for one week. In it we can record every time we notice ourselves saying something that is pessimistic, and then write a different version that is more optimistic, using the three aspects with their examples above.

What the Optimism Journal will do is to prepare the ground for change. In my experience, awareness of what we are doing with our mind is a crucial step on the road of change.

Next week I’ll present some sure-fire ways of developing optimism.

How do you rate your three dimensions of optimism?

Enjoy these related articles:

Counting Your Blessings: 5 Ways to Increase Happiness

7 Strategies for Good Luck

Photo by Meredith Farmer

About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind WritetoDone.com, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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