You might not know who Roy Sullivan is - in fact, I’d be very surprised if you did know who he is - but, in our house, he’s a legend.
It all started about eight years ago, when my youngest child came home from school very excited to share the story of Roy, the man who got struck by lightning seven times and survived.
“How lucky is that?” he proclaimed, as our other son solemnly stated: “That’s really unlucky.”
The stark difference between our children got me interested in the whole subject of optimism and the part it plays in our mental wellbeing, particularly in young people. There are, not surprisingly, strong links between pessimistic thinking and depression in later life and realistic optimism is one of the strengths which combine to create resilience. Not surprisingly as a coach, but also a parent, I wanted to know if we could influence it for our eldest son.
I started experimenting. When he made what I heard to be a pessimistic statement I would ask: “How else could you describe that?” or “What’s the opposite?”
It seemed to work. Now, he may still naturally see the pessimistic view, but he will quickly flip his view with the statement: “Or it could be that…..”
I use this story in lots of the resilience work I do to demonstrate the way people have a naturally optimistic or pessimistic approach to a situation. It happens from a very young age and it’s why we introduce some of these ideas into our Resilience Rocks workshops in schools.
As with all things, just telling someone to be or think differently doesn’t work. Someone who is naturally pessimistic won’t just “think positively” because they are told to.
So how do we help then?
1) Label the thinking not the person
Giving children labels can impact them for the rest of their lives. You aren’t trying to change the person, just the way in which they think about some situations. They will learn how to think optimistically, not become an optimist. Nothing is that simple.
2) Practice looking for the opposite
I’ve already touched on this. It’s an easy way to challenge gently what someone is saying.
- What’s the opposite?
- What else could happen?
- How might someone else view it? (using someone you both recognise as an optimistic thinker)
3) Explanatory style
How we describe a situation helps in how we then view it and deal with it. With children, it is easy to get them to recognise when using words like “everything”, “everyone” and “always” to describe a situation makes it worse. Getting them to spot the use of these words then swap them for a different, more accurate, description really works.
- Everyone or someone?
- Always or this time?
- Everything or something?
4) Three good - one bad review
If the tendency is to highlight the negative, then ask for three positives in return. It’s a great way to review the day or a future event which may be causing concern.
5) Little steps and consistency As with anything worthwhile, it takes time, effort and desire, but from the Mum of a previous pessimistic thinker, now well and truly into the teenage years, it’s worth the effort.
The beauty of the exercise with our son is that my husband has also been encouraged to see the opportunity and optimistic approach rather than the threat of the pessimistic. And that’s why Roy Sullivan is a legend in our house.