What Is Your Optimism Style?

February 16, 2017

There’s a little bit of theory I want to share to set the table for the exploration. It’s called attribution theory and includes people’s typical attributional styles. It’s a little complicated, but I hope I can make it simple for you.

Theory? Let’s Not Get Too Complicated
We have three dimensions to consider when deciding how we explain anything that happens to us. We’re looking at causality, meaning assigning a cause for an outcome. One dimension is internal vs. external. Did this happen because of something I did or something about me, or because of something outside of me?

The second dimension is state vs. trait, or stable vs. temporary. If you did well, do you believe you tried harder or that you are always highly capable? Do you maybe believe that in this situation you were lucky, or that you are always lucky?

The third dimension is our evaluation of the outcome. Was it positive or negative? Was it a good thing or a bad thing?

4 Attributions For Whatever Happens
Internal/External and Stable/Temporary create a two by two matrix with four combinations. We have attributions to:

  • Internal Stable factors
    Examples: “I’m naturally talented at math” or “I’m not any good at math.”

  • Internal Temporary factors

    Examples: “I came up with a strategy that worked” or “I wasn’t paying close attention.”

  • External Stable factors
    Examples: “People are generally kind and helpful” or “Things usually go wrong.”

  • External Temporary factors
    Examples: “The other robot broke down” or “It was rainy and the field was slippery.”

8 Categories When You Consider The Outcome
When you include the value of the outcome, positive or negative, there are eight attributions, such as Internal Stable for a Positive Outcome or External Temporary for a Negative outcome.

Optimism plays a role in expecting positive outcomes, but it’s also involved in explaining away negative outcomes. When you consider different paths to optimism, which produce different Optimism Styles, you see how it can be beneficial in some situations and detrimental in others.

Different Kinds Of Optimism: Optimism Styles
Attributing positive outcomes to something Internal and Stable like well-developed skill or reliance on strengths and talents could create an Optimism Style rooted in preparation and ability. Attributing positive outcomes to something External and Stable like luck, “things just seem to go my way,” or “things always works out well for me,” could create an Optimism style that downplays the importance of preparation and effort.

On the other hand, when things turn out disappointing, an Internal Temporary attribution, like “I didn’t try very hard” or “I was having an off day” could be part of an Optimism Style that points to a path to improvement. An External Temporary attribution like “It was an unusually hectic time so I didn’t have time to focus on this” could be a path to self-compassion and also show a path forward because it considers preparation and focus important. But an External Temporary attribution like “The people we had to deal with were just too demanding” could take the heat off and lead to an Optimism Style that focuses more on the luck of circumstances than the controllable impact of preparation and effort.

Let’s consider applications to make this exploration more useful.

Check Your Optimism
Get curious about times you feel optimistic so you can develop a healthy, high-functioning Optimism Style. Notice where your attribution is that leads to optimism.

Do you generally think it’s something under your control or out of your control? Something that you can choose to do, or something in your nature that just leads to positive outcomes? Notice that one path encourages preparation and effort and the other tells you they are unnecessary.

Get curious about how you track the way things turn out for you. Are you pretty accurate? Do you think things go well more often than they really do? Does your optimism keep your attention on good outcomes and tend to ignore the bad ones? If so, you might want to consider replacing those automatic thought patterns with something new and more in line with real outcomes.

Check Your Pessimism
Get curious about times you feel pessimistic so you can boost your optimism and find a healthy, high-functioning Optimism Style. Notice how you attribute negative outcomes.

Do you generally think something like, “Nothing ever works out for me” or maybe “I’m just not very good at things like this”? If so, you can challenge those thoughts by tracking outcomes, since pessimism is likely to focus your attention on the negative ones and downplay the positive ones. Seeing more positive outcomes than you automatically expect is a great nudge, or kick, to reshape your thoughts.

Get curious about your level of preparation and effort when you have an expectation that you’re not good at something or that things don’t go well for you. Are those beliefs keeping you from doing what it takes to be successful? What could motivate you to do something within your control to try for a better outcome? What belief would serve you better?

Here’s a hint. Take some time to learn about Carol Dweck’s growth mindset concept and see how you can find optimism in it.

Lead it forward: A great place to start is to be aware of whether you think of yourself as a generally optimistic or pessimistic person. Then start noticing how you attribute causality that contributes to your optimism or pessimism. Consider what a healthy Optimism Style looks like for you and find a way to practice new thoughts to replace your automatic evaluations. You might find as a “hopelessly romantic optimist” you need to be more realistic to get better outcomes, or as a pessimist you need to see what is under your control and focus there. Once you’re comfortable sorting out different aspects of optimism and pessimism, look for opportunities to bring this into your conversations with people you supervise and lead.

The Robot Saga Continues
Here’s a follow-up on the progress of my son’s Carroll Dragons Team 7110 Z and their robot, Mikey. They made it to the semifinals in the competition at their high school and the following weekend made it to the semifinals in the last regular season competition. They also competed in skills tests and scored high enough to be invited to the state tournament at the end of the month.

Was this the result of Design Thinking and hard work? Was it just luck? Was it the individual effort of the driver who navigated the skills course?


All of these factors came together to put the team in a strong enough position to qualify. It’s a good example of how optimism fueling effort is a strong combination. They have a hopelessly romantic optimist on their team, after all.

How A Healthy Optimism Style Can Work To Your Benefit
It’s also a good example of how optimism tuned well can down-regulate the focus on negative outcomes and up-regulate the focus on positive outcomes. Go too far with this and you stop worrying about needing to prepare and show effort because you ignore the negative possibilities. But focus too much on negative outcomes and you get disheartened and might want to give up.

It seems that a healthy Optimism Style that acknowledges negative outcomes but focuses more on good outcomes with positive expectation might promote sustained effort towards success. Or is that maybe a limit to my own optimism based on my cautious, somewhat skeptical style? Does believing things work out well really lead to things working out well?

That’s hard for this skeptic to believe. I’m going to get curious about my own skepticism to see how I can boost my optimism.

May you be well, may you do well, and may you Thrive!

Take Care,

Stephen Coxsey, MA, LPC, PCC
Whole Life Leadership Coach


One Response to “What Is Your Optimism Style?”

  1. Newsletter Intro 02-2017 : on February 16th, 2017 4:30 am

    […] Click here to continue to the article on Optimism Styles. […]

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