Learned Optimism vs. the Habit of Pessimism

About five years ago in a used book store I stumbled across a copy of “What You Can Change and What You Can’t” by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.  As an amateur student of psychology and being my own personal “lab rat” to experiment on, I found this book interesting and enlightening.  

At the book’s basic crux Seligman covers a spectrum of human conditions and how each may or may not be changed.  At one end of the range he notes sexual preference which can’t be changed.  At the other end of the scale Seligman places phobias which with about 90% effectiveness can be overcome.  In the middle are conditions that can be moderated with treatment, but not changed.  Reading this book gave me a good framework of Seligman’s research and theories that helped as I moved deeper into his work.  

Martin Seligman is well known in clinical circles and considered to be one of the more innovative psychology researchers today.  Sometimes controversial, often groundbreaking, he studies positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, optimism and pessimism. The second book by Seligman I discovered is titled “Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life” and this one rocked my world!  

The key premise of “Learned Optimism” turns traditional “positive thinking” beliefs on their head by clearly illustrating that “Non-negative thinking” (not “positive thinking”) is the key to success in all parts of life. Seligman wrote: “The optimistic individual makes the most of his talent.”  The optimistic individual perseveres.”  A pessimistic person often comes to believe their actions are futile and thereby learn to become helpless with depression not far behind.    

So, what separates optimistic people from more pessimistic people? Seligman says it’s the way we explain events and outcomes to ourselves. If something good happens to us, how do we explain it? Was it luck? Or was it the result of our talent? 

If something bad happens to us, how do we explain that? Is it that conditions just weren’t right? Or did the bad event happen because we’re somehow horribly flawed as individuals? Will this flaw eternally damn us in all other endeavors? 

Seligman says optimists and pessimists attribute the reasons for success and failure differently. Pessimists usually think failure and bad events are permanent, personal, and pervasive factors. Optimists tend to credit bad events to non-personal, non-permanent, and non-pervasive factors.   

Thinking adverse parts of life are permanent and unchangeable brings pessimism.  Believing negative elements of life will go away or can be overcome is a key to being an optimist.  Seligman writes: “Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope. … Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.” 

“Learned Optimism” includes a quiz to determine one’s own levels of optimism and pessimism.  You can take it on line for free:  http://www.stanford.edu/class/msande271/onlinetools/LearnedOpt.html 

Being pessimistic at times does have its place.  Without it I can lose touch with reality.  Pessimism is useful because it forces me to confront situations and change direction when necessary.  Being relentlessly optimistic could cause me to be somewhat blinded to reality.  It is pessimism that brings me down to stark reality when I need it.  But in majority I live with an optimistic mindset permeating my life.  

How I think is as much habit as anything else.  When I was more accustomed to seeing things negatively and believed I could only expect more of the same that is exactly what I found.  When I expected bad stuff and expected it the sky seemed to rain crap on me all the time.  Training my self to be more objective and allowing negative thoughts to be balanced with optimistic thinking has had a tremendous impact on my well being. 

Don’t worry I am not delusional and live in some false state of bliss.  I just don’t dwell on the bad stuff.  Simply fighting off the quick-sand of negative thought with weapons like “I am not going to think anymore about it” or “stop it, you’ve done enough of that” consistently over time has pointed my life in a different direction.  Through this learning experience I have become much more grateful.  Thankfulness is fertile ground for optimism, hope and faith.  I know of no greater sweeteners for living my life. 

Seligman’s book “Authentic Happiness” helped me further hone my ability to live with optimism and gratitude.  And I have just begun reading his new book “Flourish”.  Thank you Dr. Seligman for all the goodness you and your work have brought to my life! 

A composer can have all the talent of Mozart and a passionate desire to succeed, but if he believes he cannot compose music, he will come to nothing. He will not try hard enough. He will give up too soon when the elusive right melody takes too long to materialize.  Martin Seligman