Do You Have an Optimistic Explanatory Style?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Advantage" by Shawn Achor. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is an optimistic explanatory style? How can having one benefit you personally and professionally?

Your explanatory style determines how you explain the events of your life to yourself and others. An optimistic explanatory style allows you to overcome adversity, be more productive at work, and have greater self-confidence.

Learn more about the optimistic explanatory style below.

The Optimistic Explanatory Style, Explained

Having an optimistic explanatory style involves framing events that happen to you in a positive way. For example, someone with an optimistic explanatory style would view adversity as something that is temporary and specific to the event, rather than something that would inevitably happen due to something being inherently “wrong” about them.

In order to overcome difficult situations, look at adversity as a building block for your personal growth, rather than an obstacle in your path. People with an optimistic explanatory style tend to have the following responses to adversity:

  • Acceptance of the situation
  • Coping mechanisms that involve confronting the problem (instead of hiding behind denial or avoidance)
  • Optimism
  • Reinterpreting the situation as positive

To change your mindset, examine it. Consider this hypothetical scenario: You walk into a bank where there are 50 other people, and a robber walks in, shoots his gun once, and the bullet gets you in the arm. Were you lucky or unlucky? People who call it unlucky point to the bad fortune of walking into a bank as it’s being robbed, and that, out of 50 people, they were the ones to get hit. By contrast, people who call it lucky say that they could have been shot fatally, or that the bullet could have hit a child. 

Both groups base their answer on a counterfact, which is a hypothetical alternative scenario that they use to frame the reality: People who deem the bank shooting unlucky imagine a far better outcome and are therefore disappointed in the results, while the lucky group imagines a far worse scenario and are thus content with the outcome. You have the power to create your counterfact—a counterfact that encourages positivity brings the motivation and performance benefits that we’ve discussed, while a negative one distorts your perspective to make obstacles seem greater than they actually are. 

In addition to examining your counterfacts, assess your explanatory style, or the way in which you make sense of a challenging event:

  • People with an optimistic explanatory style view adversity as specific and temporary. 
  • People with a pessimistic explanatory style view adversity as widespread and permanent, which leads to learned helplessness.

Having an optimistic explanatory style impacts success in all areas of life—including academic success, athletic performance, physical recovery from medical procedures, and productivity at work. A study at one insurance company revealed that salespeople with an optimistic explanatory style sold 37 percent more than those with a pessimistic style, and the most optimistic sellers sold 88 percent more than the most pessimistic. Following the study, that company began basing its hiring on explanatory styles more than industry knowledge; as a result, turnover dropped and market share soared. As such, this shows the amazing benefits of having an optimistic explanatory style.

Do You Have an Optimistic Explanatory Style?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Happiness Advantage summary :

  • How happiness isn’t the result of success, it’s the cause of it
  • The benefits of happiness—from increased creativity to improved health
  • Strategies for adopting a positive mindset and raising your happiness baseline

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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