Fifteen Months Old

Positive Explanatory Style

Parent Group – Discussion Notes From the Book
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind & Your Life
Written by Martin Seligman PhD

Mom’s Explanatory Style

I am never going to get this” (permanence)
It’s all my fault” (pervasiveness)
This undermines every aspect of my life” (personalization)

Learning optimism can prevent depression, improve achievement
& raise physical health in mothers and their children

Our explanatory style stems directly from our view of our place in the world and whether we think we are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. It is the hallmark of whether we are an optimist or a pessimist. A pessimistic explanatory style is at the core of depressed thinking and research tells us pessimistic children become depressed teenagers. The four diagnostic symptoms of depression are negative changes in: thought; mood; behavior and physical response.

There are three major hypotheses about the origins of negative thinking in children, in order they are: trauma, mother’s explanatory style then adult criticism by teachers and parents. We all grumbled, though we were not really surprised that we ranked so high!

To be optimistic: “The good news is” we are studying Seligman’s three crucial dimensions to improve our explanatory style and consequently support our children in being resilient and in a hopefulness that perceives the glass as half full.

1. Permanence          2. Pervasiveness          3. Personalization

These three dimensions have two opposite approaches depending upon the perspective of the event as positive or negative. Hang in here, the samples that follow will help all this make sense. Dr. Cooper reminded us that the defining of positive and negative is for the sake of understanding our explanatory style and what to do about it, but ultimately to be aware that feelings of inferiority or superiority, blaming, labeling and the like are self-esteem ‘trappings’ we addressed in our Parent Group Discussion, see our Parent Notes on the book: The Self-Esteem Trap.

Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our explanatory style: pervasiveness and permanence. When we find temporary and specific causes for our misfortune we are practicing the art of hope: Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation. On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all our endeavors. When we find permanent and universal causes for misfortune we are practicing despair… The optimistic style of explaining good events is the opposite of that used for bad events: It’s internal rather than external. People who believe they cause good things tend to like themselves better than people who believe good things come from other people or circumstances.”

Marty Seligman

Let’s break this down


The permanence dimension is about time and determines how long we give up for.
A. Negatively Perceived Events

PERMANENCE (Pessimistic)               TEMPORARY (Optimistic)
You always nag.”                                 “You nag when I don’t clean my room.”
You never talk to me.”                         “You haven’t talked to me lately.”

When we give up easily, we believe the causes of negative events that happen to us are permanent, will persist, and will always be there to affect our lives. When we think about negatively perceived events in ‘always’ and ‘never’ absolutes and abiding traits we have a pessimistic style. When we think in ‘sometimes’ or lately,’ use qualifiers and blame negatively perceived events on transient conditions, we have a more optimistic style.

B. Positively Perceived Events

TEMPORARY (Pessimistic)               PERMANENT (Optimistic)
I was lucky.”                                     “I am lucky.”
I try hard.”                                       “I do my best.”

When we pessimistically perceive positive events we name transient causes such as moods, effort, and ‘sometimes.’ When we think optimistically we explain positive events in terms of permanent causes: traits, abilities, and ‘always.’


The pervasiveness dimension is about space.

A. Negatively Perceived Events
UNIVERSAL (Pessimistic)               SPECIFIC (Optimistic)

All parents are unfair.”                    “My mom is being unfair…about this”
Books are useless.”                         “This book is useless…in the explanation of…”

When we think “bad” events have universal explanations we produce helplessness across many situations. Whereas when we make specific explanations we indicate we are helpless only in one area.

B. Positively Perceived Events
SPECIFIC (Pessimistic)               UNIVERSAL (Optimistic)

I’m smart at math.”                   “I’m smart.”
I can be charming to her.”          “I am charming.”

When we are optimistic about positive events we resist thinking in specific causes and positively perceive events as enhancing everything else we do.


The personalization dimension controls how we feel about ourselves, while the permanence (how long we are helpless) and pervasiveness (across how many situations) dimensions control what we do.

A. Negatively Perceived Events
INTERNAL (Low Self-Esteem)               EXTERNAL (High Self-Esteem)

I have no talent at basketball.”               “I have no luck at basketball.”
I am no good at math.”                         “I not sure of my math skills…I need more practice”

When we blame ourselves and internalize negatively perceived events we tend to have

lower self-esteem. Whereas when we externalize we believe good things come from other people and circumstances and we tend to like ourselves better.

B. Positively Perceived Events
EXTERNAL (Pessimistic)               INTERNAL (Optimistic)

A stroke of luck…”                        “I can take advantage of luck being on my side.”
My teammates’ skill…”                 “My skill…”

When we are optimistic we resist thinking externally and positively internalize events.

*The key to this process is to have hope.


  • Permanence: Optimistic people believe bad events to be more temporary than permanent and bounce back quickly from failure, whereas others may take longer periods to recover or may never recover. Optimists also believe good things happen for reasons that are permanent, rather than seeing the transient nature of positive events. Optimists point to specific temporary causes for negative events; pessimists point to permanent causes.
  • Pervasiveness: Optimistic people compartmentalize helplessness, whereas pessimistic people assume that failure in one area of life means failure in life as a whole. Optimistic people also allow good events to brighten every area of their lives rather than just the particular area in which the event occurred.
  • Personalization: Optimists blame bad events on causes outside of themselves, whereas pessimists blame themselves for events that occur. Optimists are therefore generally more confident. Optimists also quickly internalize positive events while pessimists externalize them.

Let us thoughtfully chose the way we think.

Then Dr. Cooper discussed PERCEPTION as the underlying vulnerability from which mother’s explanatory style breeds. “How we define our challenge is the first challenge.” She talked about some buzz words to alert us, red flags that we’re speaking negatively. For example: use switch-the-brain-on words like “challenge” rather than “problem,” “remember” rather than “forget,” “do” rather than “try” and say what you want – “walk” rather than what you don’t – “don’t run!”

Do or do not, there is no try – Yoda

We must gently go within, and with compassion, develop understanding and heal our negative or depressed orientation to support the healing of pessimism in our children and the prevention of depression in our teenagers. We were returned to a Carl Jung quote: “If there is anything we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could be better changed in ourselves.

Do Your Best

EBIPS the Awesome Parenting Apps – Click Daisy Emotional Behavioral Intellectual Physical & Social. Understand your children’s developmental milestones, newborn through ten, Take pics, document and organize in albums and slideshows.


for a newsletter
Sign up