Can you learn to have a positive outlook? And if you could…how would that change your life?
Learned Optimism is a concept from Positive Psychology’s founding father, Martin Seligman, which argues that we can cultivate a positive perspective.
With a more joyful outlook on life, he explains that we’re in a much better position to enhance our well-being.
This article is about the Learned Optimism concept and its benefits, as well as how you can start to change your mindset and life. If you’d love to lead a life from a ‘glass half full with a splash of ice’ perspective, then read on to learn more.
This article contains:
What is Learned Optimism in Psychology?
Put succinctly, Learned Optimism is a concept that says we can change our attitude and behaviors – by recognizing and challenging our negative self-talk, among other things. It’s also the title of his well-known book on the same, which delves into the theory a little further.
A Little Background
The aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities. (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000: 5).
Learned optimism is very much a positive psychology concept; it’s the opposite of learned helplessness: a phenomenon whereby individuals believe they are incapable of changing their circumstances after repeatedly experiencing a stressful event (Abramson et al., 1978; Seligman & Garber, 1980; Maier & Seligman, 2016).
Coming originally from a clinical psychology background, and with a lot of his work centered on pessimism, Seligman became curious about why some individuals don’t feel helpless even when conditioned to do so. His interest shifted, and he started to look into how we could condition individuals to be more optimistic instead (Peterson, 2000).
Some of his earlier work then began to consider how optimism and pessimism were related to how people explained the cause of challenges and adverse events, which set the stage for more studies into other subjects:
- The individual benefits of optimism, compared to pessimism;
- Its impact on health, well-being, and success; and
- How people can learn to become more optimistic – Learned Optimism.
Benefits Found in Research
Before examining the findings on optimism’s benefits, let’s consider exactly what the two entail. Pessimism has been defined as: “[the] anticipation of good or bad things to happen in the future” (Carver et al., 2010). Optimism is often considered the opposite but can be thought of in different ways.
Carver and colleagues have defined optimism from a dispositional standpoint, as “an individual difference variable that reflects the extent to which people hold generalized favorable expectancies for their future” (2010: 879).
According to Seligman’s explanatory style definition, “The basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes” (Seligman, 2007: 52).
From here, we can see where the idea of ‘learnability’ originated.
A few benefits of optimism include:
1. Improved Health
Several studies illustrate the different ways that optimism has a positive impact on our health. For example:
In a study of head and neck cancer patients, optimistic patients reported a higher quality of life both before and after treatment, suggesting that their positive outlook buffered the effects of health-related distress (Allison et al., 2000). Similar findings of lower distress have been reported in individuals undergoing treatment for breast cancer (Carver et al., 1999).
Optimistic individuals also tend to be more aware of their health status and how to stay that way. Specifically, Radcliffe and Klein’s (2002) research studied 146 middle-age adults and found that those with high optimism were more informed about heart attack risk factors, as well as the role of other risk factors on their health: stress, alcohol consumption, nutrition, smoking, fat consumption, and exercise.
Optimists may also take a more approach-focused method of dealing with health stressors. Rather than trying to avoid, ignore, or withdraw from a health concern, optimistic people are more inclined to seek practical support, cognitively restructure, or reinterpret the situation positively, among other coping methods (Nes & Segerstrom, 2006).
Studies have also shown that optimistic people were less likely to need rehospitalization after a coronary bypass or repeat cardiac operations (Scheier et al., 1999; Helgeson, 2003; Cauley et al., 2017). They were also less likely to develop high blood pressure than pessimists, suffer from stress-induced changes in immunity, and even develop heart disease in the first instance (Everson et al., 2000; Kubzansky et al., 2001; Brydon et al., 2009)
2. Motivation and Performance
At work, optimism has been linked to intrinsic motivation to work harder, endure during stressful circumstances, and show more goal-focused behavior (Luthans, 2003).
As an important contributor to employees’ well-being, it has been linked to improved overall happiness in the workplace, task-orientation, solution-focused approaches, perseverance, and decision-making efficacy (Strutton & Lumpkin, 1992; Normal et al., 1995; Podsakoff & MacKenzie, 1997; Choik Foong Loke, 2001; Harter et al., 2003; Gavin & Mason, 2004).
This higher motivation was also shown in studies of college students (Solberg Nes et al., 2009). In academic contexts, higher optimism was also coupled with better grade point averages, a finding which may be because optimistic tendencies have been linked with higher persistence (Segerstrom & Nes, 2006).
3. Career Success
Seligman himself researched the optimism levels of Metropolitan Life Insurance agents in 1985 – a study that he describes in his Learned Optimism book. At the time, Met Life was struggling with poor staff retention rates despite investing vast amounts in training, so Seligman introduced an optimism test to their screening process.
Because the company was short on employees, they hired a few who scored below the cut-off point – two years after hiring, the optimistic employees had sold 31% more than the pessimists (Seligman & Schulman, 1986; Seligman, 2011).
Not only this – those candidates who had failed the company’s aptitude test and scored well on the optimism test did 57% better than the pessimists in the second year, suggesting that optimism played a more significant role than selling proficiency.
Elsewhere, career optimism specifically has also been linked positively with subjective career success, job satisfaction, and the external marketability of female academics (Spurk et al., 2015). It has even been linked with higher career adaptability (Tolentino et al., 2014) – “a set of attitudes, competencies, and behaviors that individuals use in fitting themselves to work that suits them” (Savickas, 2013: 45).
With so many promising findings, it’s encouraging that optimism can be learned. But if that’s the case, how do we get started?
Can Optimism Be Taught?
“Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.” (Seligman, 2006: 312)
The positive psychology view of learned optimism is about how we interpret the world, and according to this premise, it’s not a fixed trait or part of our disposition. Instead, it can be seen as more of a strategy – an outlook that we can learn to cultivate when we start by challenging our automatic negative thoughts.
Some studies provide evidence to suggest that optimism interventions can improve people’s optimism significantly, with the face-to-face Best Possible Self intervention having the most significant effect of all studied (Meevissen et al., 2011; Layous et al., 2013; Malouff & Schutte, 2015).
In short: if it can be learned, it can be taught, Seligman would argue (Seligman, 2011). More on this, in a little bit…
What Causes Pessimism?
There are a few different explanations in the literature on why we can be pessimistic. A fascinating paper entitled The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism discusses a couple of cognitive and perceptual reasons why people tend to be either optimistic or pessimistic (Hecht, 2013).
Attention and Information Processing
First, it may be down to how we process information and our selective attention. Think of it this way: the glass is either half full or half empty depending on where your focus lies, right?
Assuming you’re thirsty, the presence of water in the glass is a positive environmental cue – paying more attention to its presence than its absence is optimistic. You disregard the fact that half the glass is not filled, filtering out the cues that don’t correspond with your positive outlook. And eye-tracking studies suggest that pessimists do the opposite, spending more time looking at unpleasant cues than optimistic people (Isaacowitz, 2005; 2006).
Locus of Control
Hecht (2013) describes a second potential cognitive mechanism – the locus of control – that refers to our confidence that we can change or control elements of our lives. An internal locus of control is associated with optimism; this is the belief that you can take an active role in controlling things like exam results, work performance, and your environment in general.
In contrast, those with an external locus of control tend to feel helpless about changing their relationships, lives, and so forth. The latter, Hecht argues, is pessimistic.
While your locus of control and optimism can be viewed as conceptually distinct – think about perceived self-efficacy and luck, for instance – there is doubtless some overlap between the two (Peacock & Wong, 1996).
When we explain or attribute failure to internal, fixed, personal factors, we see them as uncontrollable. A failed relationship, for one, becomes “I’m not lovable,” a pessimistic outlook.
When we attribute them to external, localized, and transient circumstances, we can feel hopeful for better results next time – “I didn’t beat my personal best because I have the flu – but I’ll swim faster when I’m well.” This is distinctly optimistic.
Attributional styles also apply to positive outcomes – but the other way around. Viewing good results as due to global, stable factors inside ourselves is optimistic “I aced that because I’m a great student,” and attributing them to temporary and uncontrollable causes is pessimistic “Wow that was a one-off, downhill from here” (Abramson et al., 1978).
The Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) is one self-report measure often used to measure explanatory styles and optimism.
Returning to our original question, therefore, there are a few potential psychological reasons why we may be pessimistic at specific times, or in general. Learned optimism is the idea that these can be addressed.
How To Improve Optimism
There are a few ways to improve your optimism. Seligman recommends Albert Ellis’ ABC Technique in his Learned Optimism book, and it doesn’t hurt to know more about the cognitive distortions that need to be changed.
Cognitive Distortions – The 3 P’s
Three cognitive distortions tend to underpin the way we understand our experiences: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. By tackling these distortions, we can learn to be more optimistic.
Personalization can be thought of as an internal vs. external attribution style. If something bad happens, a pessimist will attribute it to internal factors. They’ll see that failure or setback as something that’s their fault, personalizing the outcome. Optimists externalize instead; they aren’t to blame so that next time may be better.
Pervasiveness describes the global or specific element of adversity or a negative event. A global or pervasive attribution is pessimistic and closely related to catastrophizing, “I did a terrible job; I’ll never be hired again – EVER.” Someone who views an undesirable outcome as pervasive will also be more inclined to believe that it will impact other aspects of their lives, too: “It means I’m a bad student, too, and unlovable (again).” Optimists see positive events as pervasive, it can be argued, rather than negative ones.
Permanence is about whether we view a negative situation as fleeting or lasting and unchangeable. A pessimistic explanatory style sounds something like: “I’ll always be a terrible dancer, it’s just who I am/how it is.” A positive one sounds more like: “I probably didn’t dance so well because my leg is currently hurting, but I’ll be back on top soon.” The key takeaway here is that the situation or circumstances are not fixed or unchangeable.
How To Become More Optimistic – The ABC Technique
We can change our explanatory styles by challenging these cognitive distortions. In Learned Optimism, Seligman introduces an adapted version of Dr. Albert Ellis’ ABC Technique – we’ll use an example to illustrate how it works.
The acronym ABC refers to:
Adversity – e.g., fighting with a friend;
Beliefs – e.g., “Wow, I’m an awful friend and always will be”; and
Consequences – e.g., you don’t try to make peace with your friend, because you can’t change who you are.
Your explanatory style is how you get from A to B, and this is what Seligman argues that we can learn to change. It’s where one, two, or all of the 3 P’s come into play. Which one(s) did you notice here?
Relearning your own ABC process is about becoming more aware of these cognitive distortions or pessimistic explanatory styles, confronting them, and replacing them with more optimistic and adaptive thoughts. Simply understanding these relationships is often the first step to changing the way you think to a more hopeful one (Saelid & Nordahl, 2017).
Learned Optimism: Martin Seligman’s Book Summary
Haven’t read it yet? Learned Optimism starts with an introduction that describes the “Pleasant Life,” “Engaged Life,” and “Meaningful Life” – three kinds of happiness that learned optimism could help you achieve.
The Pleasant Life is about amplifying positive emotion and acquiring the skills to do this;
The Engaged Life is one where you discover your highest strengths and reshape your life to make the most of them – in relationships, leisure, and work; and
The Meaningful Life involves utilizing them to “belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self” (Seligman, 2006: iv).
The book itself is broken down into three sections: The Quest, The Realms of Life, and Changing.
In it, Seligman refers to a vast and extensive body of optimism literature to illustrate its beneficial impacts on quality of life, performance, motivation, health, and other life domains. It’s a combination of practical techniques about breaking pessimistic habits and replacing them, and a discussion of the skills that optimism involves.
It features a good deal of detail regarding the experiments he was academically involved in and anecdotal narrative about how relevant theories were developed. Learned Optimism also covers the potential dangers of extreme or unrealistic optimism, and gives some easy-to-digest pointers on how to be adaptively optimistic, such as:
- Being grateful for your blessings;
- Helping others in greater need than yourself;
- Challenging the utility of your negative thoughts and beliefs; and
- Tackling negative self-talk head-on.
As well as the theory and practical exercises, Seligman’s book includes the Learned Optimism Test, which helps the reader understand their existing explanatory styles in greater depth. He also includes some material about how to cultivate optimism in children that caregivers, educators, and parents will likely find valuable.
You can find the book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life on Amazon.
The Learned Optimism Test
Chapter 3 of Learned Optimism features a 48-item test that you can do to assess the three dimensions of your explanatory style: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.
For each, you’re asked to imagine each situation happening to you and select the response that best describes what you would think. Here are some examples: note that some items are reverse scored (Seligman, 2006).
- You run for a community office position, and you win. (Pervasiveness)
- I devote a lot of time and energy to campaigning.
- I work very hard at everything I do.
- You forget your spouse’s (boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s) birthday. (Personalization)
- I’m not good at remembering birthdays.
- I was preoccupied with other things.
- You owe the library ten dollars for an overdue book. (Permanence)
- When I am really involved in what I am reading, I often forget when it’s due.
- I was so involved in writing the report that I forgot to return the book.
It’s also possible to take adapted versions of the test online, such as this Learned Optimism Test offered by Standard University.
5 Learned Optimism Exercises
1. Exploring Explanatory Styles
This Exploring Explanatory Styles exercise from our Positive Psychology Toolkit is designed to help you or your client experience the difference between interpreting and explaining events in everyday life.
Part One of this activity involves visualizing a hypothetical adverse scenario from a pessimistic point of view, then from an optimistic one. You are asked to imagine you’ve faced a setback, and then the exercise guides you through different elements of the situation that you can consider.
It uses the ideas of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization to help you see it from both explanatory styles. Then, it provides some evaluation questions to trigger self-reflection, for example:
Was there a difference in how you felt in each of these mindsets?
Did one mode feel more familiar to you than the other? If so, which?
In Part Two, you repeat the same steps with a positive hypothetical. The table below gives a concise overview of the concepts at play:
|Optimistic Explanatory Style||Pessimistic Explanatory Style|
|Positive Life Event||Permanent
|Negative Life Event||Temporary
2. Thought Record Worksheet
Tackling cognitive distortions, as we mentioned, is part of learning to be more optimistic. This involves being aware of your thoughts, trying to be objective about them, and challenging them (Miller, 2001).
You can use this worksheet to record negative thoughts and look at whether some of them are related to any of the 3P’s. Then, you come up with evidence to support the thought, and evidence that contradicts it.
For example, if you missed your son’s basketball game, your thought might be, “I am a terrible mother who will never be there for her son.”
You might then consider the evidence at hand – e.g., you got stuck in traffic – and come up with a more adaptive thought, such as “Those roadworks were to blame, and next time I’ll leave earlier to be on time.”
Here is our free Thought Record Worksheet.
3. ABC Functional Analysis
As we’ve discussed, the ABC technique can help you understand what underpins your behaviors and the consequences they give rise to.
There are three columns for Antecedents, Behavior, and Consequences on this sheet, so you can use it to explore your explanatory style in both positive and negative situations.
Using the information in our “How To Improve Optimism” section, you may find this worksheet helpful in challenging a pessimistic explanatory style when you become aware of it.
4. Tapping into your Inner Optimist
The extent to which you can successfully influence your explanatory style has an impact on how you experience the event both affectively and behaviorally. The Tapping into your Inner Optimist PP Toolkit exercise aims to help you explore the difference between attending to negative or positive information.
It helps you become aware of your ability to view situations from a particular perspective.
The first step is called Tapping into your Inner Pessimist, and you’ll ask yourself questions such as:
What were some things that annoyed you this week?
What difficulties did you face at work?
The second step involves taking a more optimistic approach to viewing your week:
What were some things that made you feel happy, excited, or joyful?
What is one thing that made you proud of yourself?
Finally, you’ll evaluate your experience in the final step – this sheet gives you reflection prompts such as:
How did it feel to embody your optimistic mindset? What did you notice?
How could you use your insights from this exercise in your daily life?
5. The Best Possible Self
Research has shown that visualizing and writing about your Best Possible Self can have positive outcomes.
The Best Possible Self exercise requires people to envision themselves in an imaginary future in which everything has turned out most optimally. Writing about and imagining a BPS has been found to boost people’s well-being and mood (King, 2001; Peters et al., 2010; Meevissen et al., 2011).
This exercise invites you to envision your life the way you always hoped it would be – that you’ve accomplished everything you wanted to do, fulfilled your potential. Write as much as you like before working through the guided reflection, which asks you questions such as:
How does this exercise affect your current self-image?
Did this exercise motivate or inspire you?
How did this exercise open you to possibilities?
3 Videos to Watch
Here are some insightful videos about Optimism. If you want to learn more or get a visual overview of the concepts in this article, check these out.
1. Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman – Animation
This video gives a brief overview of optimism and pessimism, along with good examples to clarify.
2. Dr. Seligman’s Definition of Optimism
Martin Seligman describes why optimism is more than just a “glass half full” perspective. He answers a few questions on the topic and talks about explanatory styles.
3. Learned Optimism – How to Change Your Mind Audiobook
This is one to bookmark, as it’s the Learned Optimism book in audio format.
A Take-Home Message
Do you feel like you could learn to be more optimistic? Have you successfully challenged the negative thought patterns? How do you feel about the benefits of optimism, and do you consider yourself optimistic? Let us know what you think of our learned optimism exercises and the theory we’ve been looking at together; I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
If you’re keen to find out more about mindset and optimism, have a look at the optimism section on our blog. And as always, let us know if you have any questions or would like to learn more about the tools and lessons in our Positive Psychology Toolkit. Thanks for reading!
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