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Bouncing Back with Optimism and Resilience

What do you tell yourself when you goof? Did you know we have a default explanatory style? Leave it to the psychologists and social scientists to study this one!

Actually, people working with clients in a managing or coaching role, as I do, hear how individuals explain what happens to them frequently enough to spot such patterns.

Research clearly demonstrates that people who are naturally resilient have an optimistic explanatory style—that is, they explain adversity in optimistic terms to avoid falling into feelings of helplessness.

Those who refuse to give up routinely interpret setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable:

  • “The problem will resolve quickly…”

  • “It’s just this one situation…”

  • “I can do something about it…”

In contrast, individuals who have a pessimistic explanatory style respond to failure differently. They habitually think setbacks are permanent, universal, and immutable:

  • “Things are never going to be any different...”

  • “This always happens to me...”

  • “I can’t change things, no matter what...”

The scientist who's studied this the most is the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, Martin P. Seligman. He believes most people can be immunized against the negative thinking habits that may tempt them to give up after a failure. In fact, 30 years of research suggests that we can learn to be optimistic and resilient—often by changing our explanatory style.

Seligman is currently testing this premise with the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, a large-scale effort to make soldiers as psychologically fit as they are physically fit. One key component is the Master Resilience Training course for drill sergeants and other leaders, which emphasizes positive psychology, mental toughness, use of existing strengths, and building strong relationships.

This military program will no doubt provide insights for civilians who wish to become more effective within their workplaces and organizations.

Resilience training may be able to prevent traumatic stress disorders for soldiers. My own doctoral dissertation explored the factors of resilience that enabled combat soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to handle the stress of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and experience post-traumatic growth (PTG). I wonder what it can do for stressed-out executives. Your comments welcome; what do you think?

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