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What’s Your Explanatory Style?

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Does Your Explanatory Style Make You Happy or Depressed?

Do you tend to see the proverbial glass as half-empty or half-full? When something bad happens, do you tend to blame yourself or do you take it in stride? When something good happens, do you feel like it’s just a fluke?  Or do you feel like it’s something you deserve?

Turns out it makes a difference, especially if you are prone to depression. Research indicates that people with pessimistic thought habits have higher rates of depression and if they are already depressed, a negative explanatory can make the depression worse.  The good news is with a little effort you can train yourself to be more optimistic.

In his book Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, (review) Martin Seligman found there are significant differences in the quality of life between people who tend to be optimistic and their more pessimistic brethren.  “How you think about your problems, including depression itself, will either relieve depression or aggravate it.”

3 Forms of Depression

According to psychologists there are 3 basic kinds of depression:
1. Normal – the temporary depression it’s normal to feel after experiencing some sort of loss.
2. Unipolar – a longer lasting form depression.
3. Bipolar – this form of depression includes episodes of mania – unwarranted feelings of euphoria, grandiosity and frenetic speech and/or activity.  This form is more likely to run in families, is most responsive to medication and is currently thought to be a more body-based illness.

While the bipolar form often requires medication, over twenty years of research have led Seligman and others to conclude that unipolar and normal depression may simply be different degrees of the same condition. Research also shows that normal and unipolar depression are greatly helped when people are trained to shift from a negative to a positive explanatory style.

What’s Your Explanatory Style?

Pessimistic and Optimistic people explain negative experiences to themselves in markedly different ways:


1. Permanent –  Feels like the situation will last forever. “This is what always happens.”
2. Universal – One problem generalizes to all areas of life: “I’m such a failure.”
3. Personal/Internal – It’s all about me, tends to blame self: “It’s all my fault.”


1. Temporary – Nothing lasts forever: “Tomorrow is another day.”
2. Specific – Doesn’t generalize. “I almost failed math, but I’m great at sports.”
3. Impersonal/External – Tends to blame circumstances or others: “That guy’s a jerk.”

How to Create a More Optimistic Explanatory Style

1. Identify Your Style.

Notice your inner and outer dialogue. Do you tend to catastrophize a negative experience?  Do you use the words “always” and “never” to describe temporary setbacks? Do you blame yourself for things outside your control?  Do you often feel helpless and hopeless? Recognize that these thoughts and feelings are not necessarily the truth, but simply a result of your explanatory style.

2. Learn to Argue with Yourself.

If you have a pessimistic explanatory style, you need to dispute your own negative thoughts.  As Daniel Amen, M.D. says, “You don’t have to believe every negative thought that goes through your brain.” Seek out evidence to counter your negative thoughts.  Learn to make different explanations by focusing on the changeable, specific and non-personal possible causes.

3. Distract Yourself

Interrupt the string of negative thoughts by saying “Stop” and focusing on a different train of thought.  Take some positive action. Read an engrossing book, go to a movie, spend some time in nature or even volunteer for a good cause.

Of course being overly optimistic is not the goal. An optimistic explanatory style can be a drawback if we inappropriately blame others when we actually need to take responsibility.  As Seligman points out, ” Learned Optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world, but through the power of ‘non-negative’ thinking.”

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Related Posts:
Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman – Book Review
Three Little Words That Can Change Your Life

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • I love the suggestion of arguing with yourself when you have a negative thought. It’s so easy to accept those thoughts as reality, when in fact a positive statement could be just as much or more true.

  • Linda Gabriel

    Yes Madeleine, the distinction Seligman makes about “non-negative” thinking is an important one. Thanks for the subscribe!

  • Linda, This is a helpful reminder. It can be too easy to fall into the habit of being overly critical of one’s self.

    I really like your mention of Martin Seligman’s caution about being overly optimistic, that “Learned Optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world, but through the power of ‘non-negative’ thinking.”

    These days there’s such a focus on being optimistic, not being a victim, not blaming outside forces even when outside forces are to blame (such as blaming the dismal economy when you and 200 co-workers get laid off. That’s not fair or helpful, but the power of “non-negative thinking” is. I love that idea!

    P.S. I’m subscribing right now!

  • Linda, once again I love your subject matter! Our self-talk is critical, as you explained so well in this very informative post. Habitual thinking turns into a deeply ingrained mental program that ultimately runs our lives. There can be nothing more important than becoming aware of how much of our thinking we actually put on auto-pilot, and then taking steps to make a course-correction. I truly enjoy enjoy reading and learning from your site.

  • Linda,

    Thanks for another great post! By putting the power of words behind your negative thoughts, you are further reinforcing and strengthening the brain chemistry that supports depression. Speak positive words, even if you don’t feel them, so that you can support your brain to produce happy chemicals! Our brains have so much power that we don’t utilize. Thank you for reminding us.


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