Explanatory styles, which one are you using?

Explanatory style refers to the way in which we explain the causes and influences of the events in our lives. When something happens in our lives, our explanatory style is part of how we process it, the meaning we attach, and how we assess it as a threat or a challenge in our lives. It's made up of self-talk and self-perception. Our explanatory style can lead to more stress in our lives if it leans towards negative. However we can learn to modify our style to be more optimistic. The way that we can identify our own optimism or pessimism is through looking into our explanatory styles. There are three facets to our explanatory style.

  • Internal versus External (Personal)

Is the cause of an event within oneself or outside oneself? If you are having a difficult day and you see it as being "your fault," you'll feel more stressed than if you see it as being due to factors other than you.

  • Stable versus Unstable (Permanent)

Do you expect things to get better or worse? Or do you expect them to stay exactly as they are for a long time? This can make a difference in how stressful something seems.

  • Global versus Specific (Pervasive)

Is the stressor universal throughout one's life and affecting many things or specific to a part of one's life or specific situation.

Ilona Boniwell writes in her book ‘Positive Psychology in a Nutshell’ (2012), that “a pessimistic explanatory style means we use internal, stable and global explanations for bad events, and external, unstable and specific explanations for good ones.” People who use the pessimistic explanatory style tend to appraise bad events in terms of personal failure.

An optimistic explanatory style, on the other hand, is characterised by external (leaving one’s self-esteem intact), unstable (temporary) and specific (depending on circumstances) explanations for bad events and by the opposite pattern for good ones.”

Explanatory styles affect how we perceive the world, which can affect our experience of stress as well as our reactions to our stressors. Our explanatory style can be altered and changed through attention and practice. Through noticing our self talk and self perceptions. We can create an opportunity to modify our thoughts by seeing bad events as external, unstable and global. Making changes to our explanatory style can increase our wellbeing and positivity and minimise stress.

We should keep in mind however, that “there are times where it would not be best for an individual to be too optimistic” (Diener, 2003). That’s why we suggest that realistic optimism might be a better alternative. We’ll look into this in next week’s blog.

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