How Your 'Explanatory Style' Affects Your Mood

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

How do we make sense of our lives? Our usual approach is via the stories we tell ourselves. Our "explanatory style" is a form of interpretation, and it’s often something we develop and hold on to.

Here’s an example: You apply for a job and you’re rejected before even getting an interview. How might you interpret what’s happened? If you have a pessimistic explanatory style you’ll probably be thinking you messed up the application form and just weren’t good enough. It may well feed into your beliefs that you’ll never get ahead and there's no point in even trying. But if you have a more optimistic explanatory style you’ll put the issue to one side (these things happen) and you’ll be checking out other opportunities and getting on with your life.

When people suffering with depression look back on events they feel have shaped their beliefs and mindset they commonly view setbacks as Personal, Permanent, and Pervasive. These "3Ps" are identified by psychologist Martin Seligman as key factors in our risk of depression.  Here’s how it works:

Taking Things Personally: When things go wrong, as in the job application example, we can basically explain the cause in one of two ways. First, we could point the finger at ourselves for having failed. We internalize the issue and we own it.

Alternatively, we might make more room for non-personal issues, such as, “The job may have attracted some very strong candidates,” or, “I probably didn’t tick all the boxes,” or, “Maybe they had an internal candidate and were just going through the motions.” These are all speculations, and whether accurate or not they do at least provide some wiggle room for depersonalizing the issue.

Permanence: When Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, lost her husband, Dave Golberg, she found it hard to believe she would ever get past her grief. In moments of trauma it can feel as if time has stood still. This is a perfectly normal response, yet it is not a truth. What matters is our mindset. If we retain a pessimistic mindset then even good situations are perceived as temporary and bad situations as permanent. In Sheryl Sandberg’s case the early shock of her husband’s death gradually gave way to an acceptance that her grief would, and eventually did subside.

Pervasiveness: So, you didn’t get the job you wanted, or maybe that relationship you’d invested in didn’t work out. What does it mean in the broader scheme of things? Faced with loss or disappointment do we explain and interpret things in general terms or do we narrow it down to just one aspect of life?

The healthier of the two options is the latter. If we view life as many-faceted it becomes easier to let things go that haven’t worked out. You didn’t get the job -- but you’ve still got your friends, a great social life and some absorbing interests. Your life may have been affected, but only to an extent, because there are so many other aspects to it. A negative mindset will tend to generalize. “I’ll always be a failure,” “I’ll never find someone who loves me,” and so on.

Increasing Resilience

We can’t get through life without experiencing both loss and failure. The key to our ability to move forward is in our ability to bounce back. Our interpretation of losses, failures and setbacks is central to resilience. Nobody can maintain a sense of optimism in all situations. In fact, an overly optimistic person is probably unrealistic to the point where optimism creates its own problems. We can, however, aim to achieve some kind of balance where we select the explanatory style to fit the situation and so enable ourselves to move forward.

See more helpful articles:

Are You an Optimist, Pessimist, or a Depressive Realist?

Coping With Self-Help Strategy Setbacks

When Grief Won’t Go Away