Learned Optimism: Is Martin Seligman’s Glass Half Full?

If you’ve ever taken introductory psychology, one thing that you’re bound to encounter is “the glass.”

Now, this glass is unique in the fact that scholars and non-scholars seem to wage a fierce debate over the contents of said glass.

One side says that this proverbial glass is half empty, and the opposition adamantly argues that the glass is, in fact, half full.

As you may have guessed, how you view the glass reveals something about your personality. If you see the cup as half empty, you’re generally considered a pessimist. Viewing the glass as half full, then, makes you an optimist. Whether or not you agree with these classifications, the glass metaphor is powerful.

For many years, the field of psychology thought that a person’s perception of events—as optimistic or pessimistic—was hardwired. This would mean that people had to deal with themselves and helpless outlooks on life: there was no way to change personal belief systems.

Contemporary psychological says otherwise.

Research and literature published by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., contradicts the current belief that people must cope with “the cards dealt.” Seligman’s studies reveal that optimism is something we can learn, just like pessimism.

Before we take a look at how that works, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page with this vocabulary. Then, we will dig into the science behind how people can re-wire their brains for their personal benefit.

 

What is Pessimism?

Although many people have a different definition of what pessimism is, pessimism shall be defined as the perceived meaning of events as inherently negative and discouraging.

This includes persistent blaming of oneself, viewing failure as unrealistically long lasting, and a low sense of confidence. These types of perception are usually brought about, or worsened, by negative self-talk.

 

What is Optimism?

Optimism is the exact opposite of pessimism (who would have thought). Optimists approach problems from a position of empowerment. Some see overcoming adversity as a challenge, and one that they will gladly attempt to conquer.

Unfortunately, the will is not always enough to solve problems. When optimistic people are confronted by failure, they view it as temporary and often attribute the failure to the situation or circumstance.

Now that we’re using the same terms, there is something else that we should consider before looking at learned optimism.

 

Why Are We the Way We Are?

It’s important to understand why people turn out the way they do. Cognitive psychology studies just that, meaning, people’s thoughts and perceptions. These thoughts, also known as cognitions, offer insight into why we act and perceive things the way that we do.

One theory suggests that people learn via social learning. That is, people emulate and duplicate behaviors that they observe in their environment. While this might not seem important to people with developed identities, people who do not have a strong character, like children, are highly impressionable to social learning.

If their parents do not cope with stress in an optimistic manner, the children are likely to copy the pessimistic attitudes and behaviors.

If such habits persist in the long term, people are at an increased risk for learning the opposite of learned optimism: learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is detrimental to optimistic thought patterns, as it perpetuates an attitude of apathy.

Helpless people believe that whatever is going on in their life is out of their control, so it doesn’t matter what they do. Fortunately, this works in the opposite direction, too.

Parents and teachers impress young children deeply. For example, when parents show their children positive, or optimistic, ways to cope with stressors, those children are more likely to combat helpless behaviors; in other words, those children are more likely to believe in their ability to handle stress and push through it, at school, home, and social situations.

Additionally, the more positive regard you show your child, then more they’re going to replicate the thinking that resulted in receiving praise. This creates a feedback loop where optimistic thought patterns continue to wire the brain.

Now it’s time for the big reveal. The following section will cover how learned optimism can change people’s perspective.

 

Martin’s Method

Martin Seligman
Martin Seligman. Image Retrieved by URL, Property of Creative Commons 2.0.

Seligman contends that anyone can make use of learned optimism, regardless of how pessimistic a person’s outlook. Not all pessimists are the same.

As a first step, a person’s base level of optimism must be determined. To gather some hard data, Seligman developed a test (which you can take here if you’re curious about how optimistic you are).

If your base level of optimism isn’t very high, don’t worry. It just means that you are at the level where learned optimism can be the most beneficial—but more on that later.

The next step is to assess people’s reaction to negative situations.

To do this, Seligman created a system based on Albert Ellis’ ABCs. But Seligman’s system, ABCDE, adds two more steps. The first three letters stay the same: Adversity, Belief, Consequence. The additional two in the new system stand for D-Disputation and E-Energy.

If this is a little confusing, this should help:

  • Adversity – This is the event that causes stress.
  • Belief – This is how a person interprets the event.
  • Consequence – The resulting action from the belief caused by the adversity.
  • Disputation – The search for evidence to challenge negative thoughts from A-C.
  • Energizing – The result when a person conditions themselves into positive thoughts and behaviors. In response to A (adversity), B-D can eventually lead to a person to feeling energized.

 

In summary of Seligman’s ABCDE template, it is important that people understand their own beliefs and reactions to adversity. One efficient way to do this is to use a journal and document natural reactions to adversity. After a couple of days, the journal should be revisited and examined.

What are the patterns re-appearing in your writing? Do you tend to externalize good events, or rather, not give yourself credit when something goes well in your life? Do you internalize hard events, and assume fault often?

Patterns of pessimism should be considered (without judgment) in your reflections. Examine your entries, then begin brainstorming how to replace negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones.

If this seems familiar, this is because it is the D phase in Seligman’s model.

After repeated use of this practice, a person’s behavior’s can shift towards optimism. And just like that, you are re-training your brain to think in neural circuits that are much more pleasant to experience.

It might sound easy on paper, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to learn how to be an optimist overnight.

If you do not succeed the first time, then try again. Every attempt puts you closer to living a happier life. If you’re still finding yourself having trouble changing your thoughts, you are not alone. Consider the use of mental health professionals, and if you find one you like, maybe explore these ideas with them.

 

Is It Really Worth It?

Yes. Scientific evidence shows that becoming an optimist is good for your mind and body.

One such benefit is that it can increase physical health. Most stress is dangerous to the body, and sometimes, the stress of “being stressed,” is a common experience. Increased levels of stress have been linked to high levels of inflammation, weaker immune systems, increase in headaches, and a whole bunch of other somatic symptoms. Stress is not the enemy, but our thoughts of it are.

Now, optimists aren’t magically exempt from stress; however, they do seem to manage stress more efficiently than others. They have a way of dealing with stress so that it disappears at a faster rate than pessimists and normal people.

Your mental health could benefit from this, too. In a study that was done at the University of Pennsylvania, students who practiced learned optimism techniques reported fewer cases of moderate to severe depression than the control group.

Anxiety was also monitored in that study at the University of Pennsylvania. Learned optimism students showed decreased levels of anxiety issues as well.

The increase of mental wellness, or therein lack of depression and anxiety, led to students who practiced learned optimism techniques saw correlating physical benefits as well.

Learned optimism was noted to have another effect, too. People who practiced their optimism skills are reported to be more successful in the world of business.

Again, the reason is not that optimists have some magical power.

Recall the ABCDE model. Once you’re in the full optimistic attitude, a benefit is improved energy; with more energy, there is usually an increase in productivity. The more productive you are at work, on average,  the more successful you will be.

So there you have it. What was once thought to be impossible to change has evidence to suggest otherwise.

If you’re interested in continuing to learn about the issue, then perhaps you might check out Martin Seligman’s book on the subject, or read the research for yourself.

Is it wrong to view the glass as half empty? No, but it does not mean there are not benefits awaiting you if you see the glass as half full.  

 

Learned Optimism BookLearned Optimism

If this topic interests you, then this could be the perfect time for you to check out Martin Seligman’s book, ‘Learned Optimism’. The book gives a scientific, yet engaging, explanation of the benefits of learned optimism. His book is widely available for purchase.

 

The Health Benefits of Optimism

A recent UK study examined the effects of optimism on the predictability of injury and post-injury performance. In conclusion, higher levels of optimism decreased the likelihood of debilitating injury among athletes.

This could be a result of optimistic individuals being in active promotion of their health. They might balance rest and nutrition with exercise. Optimistic athletes are also found to lack a stress response during demanding physical situations.

Optimistic individuals returning to their sport while still recovering from injury are less likely to experience negative feelings such as dispiritedness, restlessness or isolation, which heighten the probability of repeat injuries.

Sometimes injuries are debilitating, so this study is not to undermine how even optimistic athletes struggle with recovery; however, ample evidence highlights that athletes who manage the stress of injuries and post-injury recovery, often carry high levels of optimistic thinking.

 

Imagine a “Future You” to Benefit the “Current You”The Health Benefits of Optimism- Making us Superhuman! 2

Optimists and pessimists are characterized by expectations that their outcomes in any given situation will be, respectively, positive or negative.

While research has shown that optimists experience better mental well-being than pessimists, it is important to consider that it is impossible to remain positive throughout every life hardship.

Research does show, however, that imagining the best possible self (BPS exercise) can increase optimism. Imagining the best possible self, or BPS, requires thinking and writing about a future self characterized by ideal circumstances and achievements.

Researchers at Obero University found that students who thought wrote and reflected about their best possible selves were more optimistic about their future than students who did the same about a typical day in their lives.

The authors speculate that this is because picturing the best possible self is linked to goals. Who are you, in the vision of your BPS?

 

Being Optimistic Can Help You to Live a Longer Life

Numerous studies also found that optimism is related to longevity, in addition to the physical and mental well-being benefits.

A US study of nearly 100,000 students found that people who are optimistic are less likely than those who are pessimistic to die from Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) or from any other cause over an 8-year period. Similar studies have also confirmed this link between optimism and good health.

The belief that good things will happen in life is called dispositional optimism and it has been strongly connected with improved recovery rates after surgery and improved cancer survival rates. This is similar to the athletes in the post-injury recovery mentioned earlier in this article.

It seems worth it to strive for optimism, considering the increased life span among other things. What do we have to lose when from an optimist’s perspective, there is so much to gain.

Whether you agree with the virtues of optimism or are struggling with one of the core ideas, we would love to hear your thoughts—optimistic or pessimistic—below.

 

References

Discovery Health. Learned Optimism Yields Health Benefits. American Psychological Association, 1997 Learned Optimism Test.”
Learned Optimism Test. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. Learned Optimism Test.” Learned Optimism Test. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Schulman, Peter. “Applying Learned Optimism to Increase Sales Productivity.” The Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management 19.1 (1999): 31-37. 1999. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Comments

  1. Michael W. Gephart

    I once wrote:
    “My cup is half full” said the man with the smile.
    ” Mine is half empty” said the man with the frown.
    But the man of God knows that his cup overflows
    whether he is up or down.

    Reply
    • Mircsi

      I love this! Also, every cup is full, if not water then air fills is! 🙂

      Reply
    • Jasmine

      That is beautiful

      Reply
  2. Marie

    Interesting. Thank you

    Reply
    • Jessie van den Heuvel

      Glad you enjoy it Marie and thanks for leaving a comment!

      Reply
      • Kimbri

        I apologize if this was already made clear, but I wanted to know if you are the author of this article?

        Reply
  3. Gerrieca

    Hi! This is really important in our study we used seligman’s study in our thesis but I need to know if learned optimism is just a study or a theory? Can you classified this as a theory? And can we put this on our theoretical framework? Please answer.

    Reply
  4. Sandip Roy

    Great article, Seph! And the title is high on emotional content! Cheers!

    Reply
  5. Paul Wierzbicki

    Joshua,
    That is a great question. Learned Optimism is something that can be self taught, but that does not mean it is always easy to teach yourself. You offer a really important scenario. The key features that are associated with depression and anxiety can make it hard for people to really get into the the process of learned optimism.
    Depressive patients can have serious motivational problems getting into the habit of learned optimism. It can be hard to do anything, let alone get out of bed. However, that is not to say that it is impossible for them to learn. Martin Seligman did not start out with the idea of positive psychology, it came to him when he was doing his work. That is why there is a way for therapists and Positive Psychology coaches to really incorporate it into their sessions.
    And its not that much different for anxiety sufferers. Their constant worry and preoccupation with disaster often makes it hard to focus on ways to maintain a learned optimistic perspective, short of them being being naturally optimistic. Again, treatment coupled with positive therapy can definitely make it possible for anxious people to learn optimism.
    In context to your question and the answer above, it is also important to take into consideration what severity the patient has. The DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders Fifth Edition) provides three levels to diagnose someone with a disorder: Mild, Moderate, or Severe. People who have a mild form of a some disorder (i.e dythimia disorder) would have a much easier time self teaching learned optimism than someone with moderate or severe depression.
    In short, yes. You there are ways to teach yourself how to incorporate learned optimism into your life without having a positive psychologist or a therapist teach you. Though, they can be very powerful aids. If you, or anyone else reading this comment has a medical concern, I would recommend seeing your PCP, mental health clinician or a psychiatrist at your earliest convenience.
    I hope this helped,
    Paul

    Reply
  6. Joshua

    Hey Paul!
    I have a question. Is learned optimism something that we can teach ourselves if given this circumstance? I can imagine it’d be problematic if a victim of depression or anxiety and the like to get themselves into the process of learning optimism. This is because they may be pessimistic and helpless about learning it in the first place unless they have someone to coach them in the right direction. Let me know what you think.

    Reply
  7. Marina Gómez Riveiro

    Optimistic people have a better control of themselves and this attitude keeps them being healthy. It all has to do with the prevention of negative attitudes that eventually may lead to illnesses such as stress or even isolation.
    Mental stability is the key element of our well-being, but is this attitude innate or can we learn to be optimistic? There are many workshops that have been created specifically as an attempt to increase our happiness, for instance, it is said that smiling increases our self-esteem and affects our mental status, but can we teach our mind to change its way of perceiving reality towards a more positive one?
    Negative energy attracts misfortune, does this imply that depending on the attitude that we have towards life we can have an influence on our fate? Optimism is supposed to lead to longevity, success and well-being and it has been proved that optimistics pass on their energy, therefore it is extremely important to be surrounded by them.
    As a piece of advice if you are a pessimistic person that tends to experience negative feelings, apart from working out and eating healthy try to be surrounded by optimistic and to benefit from the energy they produce because as Einstein said, energy is not create or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.

    Reply
  8. Mark

    Hi Paul,
    Love this mentality! Totally agree that positive thinking can be learned. I think “learned optimism” will be the next on my book list 😉
    Great positive psychology blog by the way! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Paul Wierzbicki

      Hello Mark!
      I agree. This is a pretty powerful mindset. The research that has been done shows that it can be a very beneficial one, too! I find it so uplifting to know that if the right steps are taken, people who do not experience optimism naturally will be able to improve their lives with it!
      I, too, need to get on reading the book in its entirety. I’m happy you show such an interest in learned optimism and positive psychology! If this one interests you, there is an article on the site on positive psychotherapy that you might enjoy as well, if you have not already read it.
      Cheers!

      Reply
  9. mary marg

    Great article and contribution Paul. Keep on writing.

    Reply
    • Paul Wierzbicki

      Mary Marg,
      Thank you for your kind words. I’m only reporting the research. Martin Seligman is the one who has made contributions. As a psych student,though, I feel obligated to help the readers of this site stay informed and report on ways to help them better their lives.
      I intend to write as much as I can in the time that I am with Positive Psychology Internship.

      Reply
  10. Johanna

    Hi! I’d like to tell you that I’m new to the website but I already love it! Congratulations on the amazing work!
    I’d also like to share with you a quote that changed my life for better. About 6 months ago, while getting to know positive psychology and working on some research into the development of psychological capital in employees, I came across an article by Schneider called “In search of realistic optimism”, which relates the latter to appreciation for the present. Schneider says “there may be little or no fuzziness in our perception of how much water is in a glass, but the subjective meaning of that quantity, whether it leaves the glass half full or half empty, is a matter of one’s chosen perspective.”
    What matters is how much you appreciate what you have in your glass :).
    Regards from Spain!

    Reply
    • Paul Wierzbicki

      Johanna,
      Thank you so much and welcome! Positive Psychology Program welcomes you with open arms! We hope that you’ll like our other content just as much as this one!
      Also, that’s a really powerful quote. I think Schneider has a pretty good point. Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate your glass and what you have in it, but thankfully, positive psychology has made advancements to help people who have such a hard time.
      I hope to hear about your experiences in other contexts through other articles! And again, thank you for the insight and generous compliments!

      Reply

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