Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman

Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman

Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman

Optimism is an important facet of good leadership and personal development. In Learned Optimism, father of positive psychology Martin Seligman explains what differentiates optimists from pessimists. The differences, he implies, lie in the manner the two groups perceive and analyze incidents and their environment with respect to themselves.

I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

These differences in personality and attitudes not only affect an individual’s chances of success at work or academics, but may directly impact quality of life in terms of health and well-being. Seligman goes on to say that optimists generally enjoy better health than pessimists and may even live longer!

These two habits of thinking about causes have consequences. Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and college, at work and on the playing field. They regularly exceed the predictions of aptitude tests. When optimists run for office, they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually good. They age well, much freer than most of us from the unusual physical ills of middle age. Evidence suggests they may even live longer.

We often discuss the emotional and psychological implications of positive thinking, but perhaps we should pay more attention to the physical and health benefits it offers, and the power it bestows upon us with regard to our health.

Our physical health is something over which we can have far greater personal control than we probably suspect. For example:

  • The way we think, especially about health, changes our health.
  • Optimists catch fewer infections diseases than pessimists do.
  • Optimists have better health habits than pessimists do.
  • Our immune system may work better when we are optimistic.
  • Evidence suggests that optimists live longer than pessimists.

However, Seligman maintains that not everything is dark and hopeless for pessimists. Fortunately, optimism is a skill that can be learned and developed with time and practice. The process involves a scientific approach and acquiring new cognitive skills as opposed to simplistic methods that most self-help books propagate.

A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes (…) but by learning a new set of cognitive skills. Far from being the creations of boosters or of the popular media, these skills were discovered in the laboratories and clinics of learning psychologists and psychiatrists and then rigorously validated.

Learned optimism, according to Seligman, is not the same as “positive thinking”. It is not so much about repeating to yourself “Yes I Can”, but rather about avoiding negative thinking and self-punishment.

Learned optimism is not rediscovery of the “power of positive thinking”. The skills of optimism do not emerge from the pink Sunday-school world of happy events. They do not consist in learning to say positive things to yourself. We have found over the years that positive statements you make to yourself have little if any effect. What is crucial is what you think when you fail, using the power of “non-negative thinking”. Changing the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks that life deals all of us is the central skill of optimism.

The first step in the process, of course, is to self-analyze and reflect upon our own thinking patterns. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Seligman provides a simple, yet clear test to measure this. The encouraging revelation is that being an optimist or a pessimist is not an inherent trait, but purely a MATTER OF CHOICE. With some effort, it is possible to transition into a state of optimism and reap its many benefits.

Each of us carries a Word in his heart, a “no” or a “yes”. You probably don´t know intuitively which Word lives there, but you can learn, with a fair degree of accuracy, which it is. Soon you will test yourself and discover your own level of optimism and pessimism.

If the tests indicate that you are pessimist, that´s not the end of the matter. Unlike many personal qualities, basic pessimism is not fixed and unchangeable. You can learn a set of skills that free you from the tyranny of pessimism and allow you to use optimism when you choose. These skills are not mindlessly simple to acquire, but they can be mastered. The first step is to discover the word in your heart. Not coincidentally, that is also the initial step toward a new understanding of the human mind, one that has unfolded over the past quarter-century-an understanding of how an individual´s sense of personal control determines his fate.

Learned Optimism is a very didactic explanation of how you can embrace optimism in your life, which includes a number of simple tests for you to measure your own level of optimism and powerful tips to find ways to reinforce it.

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