Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
Written By Professor Martin Seligman, Reviewed By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes
My dear business partner gave me this self-help psychology book for my birthday. That tells you two things straight off. First of all, she thinks I could do with being a lot less pessimistic! I, of course, argue that I’m simply a realist; later on I’ll reveal the author’s take on this issue.
Secondly, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life is no pop psychology book based on “a gallon of clinical lore and a teaspoonful of research” to quote the author. It reflects 25 years of quantitative trials that began with Seligman’s development of the theory of learned helplessness and progressed by degrees to insights about optimism.
High Price of Pessimism
Pessimism is revealed as a dangerous beast. It can lead to less success, worse overall health and more depression. The author notes that the skills of being happy are not the same as the skills of not being anxious or sad. In other words, curing negatives such as phobias and mental illness does not produce the positive of being happy.
There’s currently an “epidemic of depression among adults and children in the US”. There simply aren’t enough good therapists to go around and the prospect of medicating half a generation is terrifying. Luckily, Seligman’s research has demonstrated that optimism – which significantly reduces depression – can be learned.
No Mindless Mantras
Fear not. This book does not advocate mindless repetition of feel good statements like “every day in every way I’m getting better and better”. The author says if that method works for you, fabulous, but he believes that most educated people, trained in sceptical analysis, will find that approach lacking in credibility.
Instead, he advocates changing thought patterns and explanatory styles – the scripts you instinctively say to yourself when something happens. These are words you may not even be aware of but they affect how you feel and respond in the longer term.
There are three dimensions to explanatory style:
- Permanence – how long you perceive the effect of the event will last.
- Pervasiveness – how many areas of your life you allow the event to colour.
- Personal – the extent to which you see your actions as directly influencing the event.
Take a bad event, such as getting laid off. A pessimist will see it as more permanent, more pervasive and more due to her/his own inadequate actions. An optimist will see it as temporary, confined to the arena of work, or that specific job, and not due to her/his actions.
Take a good event like getting a promotion. The pessimist sees it as temporary, limited to a specific time/place/situation and not due to her/his own efforts. An optimist – you can guess it already – will see it as permanent, spilling into other areas of life and largely due to her/his actions.
An example of instinctive scripts: when a company offers to rehire people it has previously had to lay off, the optimist thinks, “I knew they’d appreciate my worth in the end”. The pessimist thinks, “They must be desperate to want me again”.
In Chapter Three, a 48 question diagnostic tests your responses to good and bad events on the permanent, pervasive and personal dimensions. As in any scenario-based quiz, some set-ups are hard to imagine realistic responses to, and the odd one I simply couldn’t understand. However, when I revisited the dubious questions later, the results appeared robust to different answers.
I found I had a consistent explanatory style, regardless of the type of event. I seem to see everything as temporary, specific and not due to my efforts. This works a treat with bad events and, indeed, as the author predicts, I bounce back and persevere. Because I don’t feel helpless, I don’t get depressed. Unfortunately, I get absolutely no mental leverage out of good things that happen. If I can possibly discount them, I will. Taken together, the scores say I am very pessimistic! It would seem my business partner was right on that …
Learning to be More Optimistic
At this point I discovered a weakness in the book. With its roots in learned helplessness, the logic presented is that people with very pessimistic scores must be poor at dealing with bad events. All the examples presented to coach more optimism and all the promised upsides are based on weak responses to bad events. Exploration of weak responses to good events is missing.
That said, becoming aware of my explanatory style has already been useful in adjusting my perception of events. Also, it’s easy enough to turn around the exercises for practising more optimism to work in my own situation.
The main techniques for boosting optimism are based around:
- distraction – becoming aware of your scripts to be able to stop yourself thinking something pervasive and destructive like “I’m stupid at everything I do”;
- disputation – arguing with yourself as an outsider would, for example, “I got high scores in all my other tests so I can’t be stupid at everything I do”. Seligman acknowledges that there will be times when disputation is hard and seems far-fetched. But he says that many negative thoughts are equally, if not more, outrageous. I think he’s right!
Pessimists are Realists
Seligman scores lots of points with me on this one. He and his research colleagues had pondered the evolutionary point of pessimism. If it produced worse health, more depression and reduced success in life, what on earth was it good for? Their conclusion was that pessimism was valuable in the climatic catastrophes of the Pleistocene for injecting rational assessment of risk. It may be sunny now, but the ice creeps higher every winter… the sabre-toothed tiger could be back any time…
Consequently, they outlined jobs that would suit natural pessimists (safety engineering, for example) and specific life situations in which it would be a better response than unbridled optimism – say at the outset of a conversation in which you want to appear sympathetic to the troubles of others.
However, it is clear that those jobs and situations are in the minority. Overall, an optimistic outlook, very occasionally tempered with an injection of realism, will serve you better.
The advice on coaching to change explanatory styles, as well as the diagnostic described above, can be used with children, especially those over the age of 8.
- pre-pubertal children are highly optimistic compared with adults;
- pessimism and depression pre puberty is more prevalent in boys and after puberty it switches dramatically to girls. They are still researching the drivers of this.
Broader Uses and Applications
The book claims that levels of optimism among presidential candidates and in sports teams can predict their level of success. They measure optimism by analysing speeches and reported comments and have found that high levels of optimism correlate with positive outcomes. Pessimistic words can put off voters, it seems, just as much as they undermine the individual’s and team’s confidence and ultimate success.
Even more tellingly, a positive correlation has emerged between optimism and health. A longitudinal study of men’s health with their youthful diary entries and more recent interviews (to measure their levels of optimism through life) has shown that the optimists live longer and in a fitter state. This research of course risks – and has attracted – accusations of quackery because it flies in the teeth of perceived medical wisdom.
Absorbing I read this book from cover to cover, including the appendices, while sitting by a pool on holiday in the tropics. That’s testament both to the readability of Seligman’s style and to how clearly I could see personal upsides in applying his techniques. Try it for yourself. And if you are sure that you are one of life’s optimists, then my congratulations. Pick it up anyway for your child, spouse or friend. Chances are, they’ll thank you for it.
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