Optimism can be a superpower. Research1https://academic.oup.com/abm/article/37/3/239/4569464?login=false links an optimistic outlook to a longer lifespan, healthier relationships, and a better quality of life.
And unlike other personality characteristics2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3861054/, optimism is something you can cultivate.
In this post, we’ll go over what learned optimism means, how to bring it into your perspective, and why it is so good for you.
What is Learned Optimism?
Learned optimism is a psychological concept that suggests that an individual can cultivate a more optimistic and empowering outlook on life, leading to greater resilience, happiness, and less stress.
This concept was developed by Martin Seligman and detailed in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Creating this type of optimism involves retraining one’s thought processes to perceive challenges or negative events more positively, focusing on changeable, specific, and non-personal causes rather than viewing these events as personal, pervasive, or permanent failures.
Learned optimism versus natural-born optimism
Natural-born optimism, often dispositional optimism, is considered an inherent trait. It’s something that individuals are born with, like being introverted or extroverted. Natural optimists think that good things will happen, and they often view the world through a positive lens, no matter what circumstances they face.
On the other hand, learned optimism is a skill anyone can develop over time. All of us can know to look at the world differently so that no matter what circumstances arise, we see through an optimistic lens.
This is good news. Because even if someone tends to look for the negative, they can learn to adopt an optimistic perspective.
An optimist laid off might see it as an opportunity to take their career in a new direction. An optimist who gets a cold might see it as a chance to get some rest finally.
If you’d like to take Seligman’s learned optimism test to discover your current optimism, you can find that here.
And if you want to up your personal growth outside of just optimism, you might enjoy this free goodie.
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The Three P’s of Learned Optimism
Seligman found three ways of interpreting and explaining events to distinguish an optimist from a pessimist. He called them the Three P’s. Let’s take a peek at these different explanatory styles.
- Personalization refers to how personally an individual interprets the cause of an event.
Pessimists tend to blame themselves when negative events occur, seeing these events reflect their inadequacies or failures.
In contrast, optimists recognize that outcomes are often the result of a complex mix of circumstances, many of which are outside their control.
Optimists tend to feel that their successes result from their doing, whereas pessimists see their success as random.
- Pervasiveness refers to the generalization of a positive or negative event.
Pessimists believe that a failure in one area of their life will inevitably lead to losses in others.
On the contrary, learned optimists see that difficulties in one aspect of life do not automatically spell doom for other unrelated areas.
Optimists tend to assume that success in one area will also pour into the rest of their lives. Well, a pessimist would see it as isolated.
- Permanence refers to how someone might assume a good or bad event will last forever.
Pessimists view adversities as permanent and might believe that the causes of bad events are unchangeable and that their effects will persist indefinitely.
Optimists see setbacks as temporary and that conditions can improve over time.
Optimists also view positive events as signs of good things to come, while pessimists would see success as a one-off fluke.
Let’s dig into these concepts a little deeper with some examples.
Examples of personalization
Remember, pessimists personalize negative events but not positive ones. And optimists personalize positive events but not negative ones.
Example: A failed work pitch
Consider a scenario where an individual pitches an idea at work, but their boss doesn’t approve it.
A pessimist who tends to personalize might think, “My idea was rejected because I’m not smart enough. Dangit, I always mess things up!” They internalize the event and attribute it it to a personal inadequacy.
On the other hand, an optimistic explanatory style might be, “My idea didn’t land this time. Maybe it wasn’t the right idea this time, or I didn’t communicate it. I’ll get feedback to see how I can improve next time.”
Example: A work promotion
As another example, let’s say an optimist gets a promotion at work. They might think, “I’ve worked hard, and this promotion has paid off!”
On the contrary, a pessimist who gets a promotion could think, “I just got lucky this time because they probably couldn’t find anyone else for the job.”
Examples of pervasiveness
Recall that pessimists believe a failure in one area of life implies they are a failure all around, whereas an optimist wouldn’t generalize a failure. On the other hand, an optimist who succeeds in one part of their life might take that confidence to other life areas, whereas a pessimist would compartmentalize their success to just that one area.
Example: A romantic rejection
For example, consider a situation where an individual faces rejection in a romantic relationship.
A pessimist might think, “My relationship ended because I’m unlovable. I’ll probably fail in my career or friendships also.” They extend the negative impact of one event to all areas of their life.
In contrast, a learned optimist would interpret the same situation non-pervasively; they would see that this disappointment is confined to one specific area of their life. They might think, “This relationship didn’t work out. But at least I am still crushing it in my career and enjoying my hobbies.”
Example: Acing an exam
As another example, an optimist may interpret a high score on a math exam as a reflection of their abilities in not just math but their academic capabilities. They might think, “I did great on this test because I’m diligent and have good study habits. This shows I can do well in my other subjects, too.”
On the other hand, a pessimist might see the good grade as isolated to this one instance. They could think, “I did well on this test, but it’s just because I’m good at math. It doesn’t mean I’ll do well in other subjects.”
Examples of permanence
Remember that pessimists view failures as permanent with unchangeable causes and successes as temporary. In contrast, optimists see failures as temporary and successes as signs of good things to come.
Example: Losing a job
For example, imagine an individual who loses their job.
A pessimist might think, “I lost my job because I’m incapable, and I’ll never be able to find a decent job again.”
A learned optimist facing the same situation might think, “It does stink to lose a job, but I know I am skilled with great potential. My skills didn’t align with what the company needed, but I know there are plenty of other, maybe better, opportunities.”
Example: Winning a competition
As another example, imagine an optimist wins an athletic competition. They might think, “Woohoo! I won this competition because I’ve worked my butt off. This win is a testament to my relentlessness, and I’ll keep winning!”
Conversely, pessimists might view the same positive event without a sense of permanence. They might think, “I just had a good day. Just because I won this time doesn’t mean I’ll keep winning in the future.”
Here’s a short video of Seligman speaking about the differences between how optimistic and pessimistic people see successes and failures.
8 Practical Ways to Cultivate Learned Optimism
If you’d like to increase your optimistic abilities, here are a few practices to try.
1. Your best possible self
This is a visualization activity that Seligman advises that involves imagining yourself in a future where everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals.
Doing this activity can get you comfortable with foreseeing a positive future. And can help build the capacity to believe that your best future is possible.
Action Step: Take a few minutes to write out the future reality of your best self. What does your life look like? What’s your career like? How much money do you make? What is your relationship with your partner, friends, and family like? How do you relate to your hobbies? What does your body look like? How is your health? And most importantly, how do you feel?
After you’ve journaled about this for a few minutes, close your eyes and envision this future with as much detail and feeling as possible. Pay attention to the feelings in this future reality.
Then, reflect on the experience. Did you notice anything interesting? How does your motivation feel after going through the activity?
If you’d like a guided meditation to help you with this activity, you can try this one:
2. Break the cycle
Distraction is a technique that Seligman advises where you divert your attention away from distressing thoughts or feelings to more positive or neutral stimuli.
It can be a helpful technique for managing stress and negative emotions in the short term.
Action Step: The next time you feel yourself spiraling into anxious or negative thoughts, pause and do something else.
You don’t have to heal all of your deepest childhood wounds now. But what can you do that’d help you feel more positive feelings?
You might consider:
- Listening to music
- Doing a puzzle to get your brain engaged in something else
- Doing a hobby
- Going for a walk
This is a helpful strategy to keep you in a positive mindset, but it also must be accompanied by deeper self-work; otherwise, you might continually avoid or numb the source of your negative feelings.
3. ABCDE model
The ABCDE model is a practical approach developed by Martin Seligman to help cultivate learned optimism. It’s a five-step process that encourages individuals to analyze their reactions to adversity and reframe their thoughts in a more positive light.
Here’s a breakdown of each step:
- Adversity (A): Recognize the adverse situation or event you face. This could be a challenging task at work, a disagreement with a friend, or any other difficulty or setback.
- Beliefs (B): Identify your beliefs about the adverse situation. These beliefs often emerge automatically and might be negative or self-defeating.
- Consequences (C): Acknowledge the results of your beliefs, particularly the emotional impact. This might include feelings of sadness, frustration, or anxiety.
- Disputation (D): Challenge your negative beliefs. Question their validity, look for alternative explanations, or consider the situation differently. The goal is to dispute your negative beliefs and replace them with more positive or realistic ones.
- Energization (E): Recognize the positive feelings and increased energy from successfully disputing your negative beliefs. This step helps to reinforce the benefits of shifting from a pessimism-based outlook to a more optimistic one.
Practicing the ABCDE model can help individuals become more aware of their automatic thought patterns and learn how to reshape them, fostering a more optimistic outlook.
To better understand this model, let’s use the example of receiving criticism at work:
- Adversity (A): You present a project proposal at a team meeting, but your manager gives you feedback that several areas need significant improvement. The feedback hits an insecurity.
- Beliefs (B): Your immediate belief might be, “I’m not good at my job. My manager thinks I’m a twat.”
- Consequences (C): As a result of this belief, you might feel discouraged, anxious, or demotivated. You might fear future presentations, doubt your abilities, and hesitate to put yourself out there at work again.
- Disputation (D): Now, you challenge your negative belief. You might remind yourself that feedback is a normal part of growth and that it doesn’t reflect on your overall competence. Maybe the project was more complex this time, or you had less time to prepare than usual. The critique is specific to this instance and not indicative of your overall performance.
- You could also look at the 3 Ps to find beliefs that are worth challenging:
- Personalization: Maybe other forces contributed to the failed project, and it wasn’t all because of you.
- Pervasiveness: Your performance in this instance doesn’t mean you are incompetent in any other area of life.
- Permanence: Just because you experienced one setback doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck forever.
- Energization (E): After disputing your negative beliefs and reevaluating the situation, you feel less anxious and more motivated. You use the feedback constructively to improve your future work instead of letting it discourage you.
This process allows you to move from pessimistic thoughts of the event to a more optimistic interpretation, focusing on specific, temporary, and external causes rather than viewing it as a personal failure.
Action Step: What’s a setback or failure you recently experienced? Take it through the ABCDE framework.
- Name the adversity
- What are your beliefs about the event?
- What are the consequences of these beliefs?
- Challenge the beliefs and thoughts.
- Notice how you feel after challenging these beliefs.
4. Concentrate on your strengths
Everyone has unique strengths and talents. By focusing on and nurturing these, you can boost your self-confidence, enhancing your overall outlook on life.
Here is a list of 24 strengths by Seligman3https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/ and a group of other psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania.
- Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to do things.
- Curiosity: Having a strong desire to learn and explore new things.
- Open-Mindedness: Being willing to consider new ideas and perspectives.
- Love of Learning: Valuing the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills.
- Perspective: Providing wise counsel to others based on your life experiences.
- Bravery: Facing challenges and difficult situations with determination.
- Persistence: Consistently working towards goals despite obstacles.
- Integrity: Behaving authentically and consistently with your values.
- Vitality: Approaching life with enthusiasm, energy, and zest.
- Love: Valuing close relationships and showing care and affection.
- Kindness: Being compassionate and helping others in need.
- Social Intelligence: Understanding and navigating social dynamics effectively.
- Citizenship: Contributing positively to your community and society.
- Fairness: Treating all individuals with equality and justice.
- Leadership: Guiding and motivating others towards common goals.
- Forgiveness: Letting go of resentments and showing mercy.
- Humility: Recognizing and valuing your strengths while staying modest.
- Prudence: Exercising caution and good judgment in decision-making.
- Self-Regulation: Managing impulses and emotions to maintain self-control.
- Appreciation of Beauty: Recognizing and being moved by beauty in various forms.
- Gratitude: Feeling and expressing thankfulness for life’s blessings.
- Hope: Optimistically expecting positive outcomes in the future.
- Humor: Finding joy and laughter in everyday experiences.
- Spirituality: Seeking a more profound sense of connection and meaning in life.
Action Step: Of the strengths above, reflect on what you think your top five strengths are.
If you’d like to take a free test that will tell you your strengths from the list above, you can do that here, though you’ll have to create a free username first.
Once you find your strengths, reflect on when you expressed those qualities in the past few days.
5. Find positive people
The people and environments you surround yourself with can significantly impact your mindset. Ultimately, hanging out with optimistic people is one of the most effective ways to increase your optimism.
Action Step: Think of the three most optimistic people you know. Then either invite one of them for dinner or, better yet, organize a group dinner with all three.
6. Put it in perspective
Putting it in perspective involves considering the worst-case, best-case, and most likely outcomes of a situation and comparing them to assess the reality more accurately. It helps to manage anxiety and maintain a balanced outlook when facing challenges or uncertainties.
Action Step: Pick a situation that’s causing you anxiety. As an example, say it’s an upcoming job interview.
The list out the best, worst, and most likely outcome.
The best might be getting the job (with higher pay!). The worst may be that you don’t get the job and the interviewer belittles you. Given that you’re qualified and have prepared well, the most likely is that you’ll have a productive interview, leaving a good impression, even if you don’t get the job.
Bonus Step: Take this further using a tip from Annie Duke, a professional poker player and psychologist.
Write out every possible outcome, from best to worst. And then assign an estimated probability to each, at how likely that event is to occur.
In the case above, it might be:
- I get the job with higher pay: 15%
- I got the job with the advertised pay 35%
- I don’t get the job, but leave a good impression: 45%
- I choke and tank the interview: 4%
- I bomb, and the interviewer belittles me: 1%
Then, you can look at the numbers and recognize that the outcomes you fear most aren’t that likely.
This framework can help you to make better decisions.
7. Reframe setbacks
Reframing your experience is incredibly powerful. It generates different thoughts and feelings associated with setbacks. And the more you practice, the more it becomes a habit.
Action Step: Notice a setback, failure, or “negative” experience you recently had.
Then, list out three knee-jerk ways you’ve interpreted that event negatively.
Then, list five new ways of positively interpreting that event.
Then, take a moment and notice what feelings arise when you sit with each of the eight interpretations.
For example, I’ll share a “negative” experience last week.
I went to a personal growth workshop and shared something quite vulnerable at one point. I then got very triggered based on how the facilitator responded to my share. I felt triggered to the point where I was starting to dissociate and had to step out of the room to regulate myself.
Here are my three knee-jerk negative interpretations of what happened:
- The event was a waste of time, and I shouldn’t have gone
- Stupid facilitators held the event, and I made a mistake in trusting them
- I shouldn’t have risked being vulnerable in the workshop, and I shouldn’t risk being vulnerable again in the future.
And here are my five positive interpretations:
- I learned about my relationship with vulnerability and developed discernment on when it feels safe to open up
- I learned how to take care of myself when feeling dissociated
- I developed more empathy for people who experience dissociation and shame spirals
- I feel more empowered and grounded in my abilities as a workshop facilitator
- I learned that the particular modality of this workshop might not be something I want to pursue further over other modalities.
You can probably imagine that when I embody the first three interpretations, I feel disempowered, bitter, and in a victim mindset. But when I embody the last five interpretations, I feel more empowered.
Now it’s your turn; what’s a negative experience you’ve had recently?
8. Act locally
Pessimistic thinking can stem from feeling overwhelmed at our inability to make a dent in the global issues our planet is facing.
One way to counteract this is to act locally4https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/hold-optimism-reap-health-benefits-2017012011003. To contribute to your local community in ways where you can notice your impact.
Action Step: Seek out a local charity—whether planting trees, volunteering at an after-school program, or visiting a senior center. Then, plan an afternoon to help out in the next few weeks.
One resource to find the right volunteer opportunity is Volunteer Match.
Benefits of Learned Optimism
Now that you have some tools to up your optimism, you might appreciate knowing just how many positive benefits there are to taking on this mindset.
- Optimists are healthier. In a meta-study1https://academic.oup.com/abm/article/37/3/239/4569464?login=false of 83 previous research studies, optimism was consistently linked to a longer life span, heart health, stronger immune function, cancer outcomes, pregnancy outcomes, and less pain experienced in sicknesses.
- Optimists are more successful. Research suggests5https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(14)00033-3?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS1364661314000333%3Fshowall%3Dtrue that optimists experience more tremendous career success than pessimists and remain more engaged in pursuing their goals. Optimists are also better problem solvers6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2894461/, likely because optimism creates resilience in facing challenges.
- Optimists have better social connections. Research5https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(14)00033-3?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS1364661314000333%3Fshowall%3Dtrue also indicates that optimism predicts healthier social relationships.
- Optimists heal from health challenges more effectively. One study7https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/optimism-and-your-health evaluated 309 middle-aged patients getting coronary artery bypass surgery. Six months after the surgery, pessimists were twice as likely as optimists to require re-hospitalization.
- Optimism supports healthy aging. Another study7https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/optimism-and-your-health looked at 2,300 older adults and found that over the course of two years, optimists were more likely to stay healthy and be able to live independently.
- Optimists live longer. A U.S. study7https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/optimism-and-your-health examined nearly 7,000 University of North Carolina students in the 1960s. Over the next 40 years, pessimists had a 42% higher death rate than optimists.
What is learned optimism versus learned helplessness?
Martin Seligman’s journey to discovering learned optimism began with his research on its opposite—learned helplessness.
Caution – this study can be upsetting to read about. In the 1960s and 1970s, Seligman conducted controversial experiments with dogs. He essentially trapped the dogs in cages and zapped them with electric shocks. After the dogs realized they couldn’t escape their cells, they stopped trying. They learned to be helpless. At that point, the researchers would continue to zap the dogs but open the cage door so the dogs could escape. But the dogs had already learned to be helpless and would stay put, taking the shocks.
Seligman described this behavior as learned helplessness, where the dogs had learned from previous experiences that their actions did not affect the outcome.
When Seligman later took his studies to humans, he discovered something curious: not everyone reacted to such uncontrollable events with learned helplessness.
Some individuals retained a sense of optimism and a belief that they could effect change in the future, even if they had previous negative experiences. This observation led Seligman to the concept of learned optimism.
Seligman offers the inspiring idea: we can learn to be helpless or optimistic.
The Difference Between Learned Optimism and Other Types of Positivity
Blind optimism and positive thinking are two types of thinking that are often confused with learned optimism. However, both blind optimism and positive thinking have significant drawbacks.
We’ll go over blind optimism and positive thinking below and then relay why learned optimism is a more effective strategy.
The problem with blind optimism
Blind optimism, as the name suggests, is the tendency to see only the positive side of any situation, regardless of the reality or facts. Blind optimists often dismiss or ignore potential problems, and their optimism can sometimes lead to unrealistic expectations or ill-informed decisions. They tend to believe that things will always work out for the best, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.
The problem with blind optimism is that it can be detached from reality.
For example, imagine you are trying to start a business that makes clothing for squirrels.
This idea won’t work. As cute as a squirrel would look in a hoodie, it’s a demographic with notoriously low purchasing power.
But a blind optimist might not know when to give up. They might assume the investor didn’t like their idea because they were in a bad mood or because they ate too many french fries last night, not because the idea itself was flawed. If an optimist is too detached from reality, they might be unable to create favorable circumstances for themself and get stuck with their head in the clouds.
Here’s a clip of Simon Sinek discussing the difference between optimism and blind optimism.
The problem with positive thinking
Positive thinking emphasizes the act of focusing on the good in any situation. It encourages individuals to dwell on positive outcomes, events, and positivity, often through affirmations or positive self-talk.
One challenge with positive thinking is that it can cause people to repress negative emotions or not know how to handle negative thoughts when they arise. This is often referred to as toxic positivity.
Focusing on the positive can be a helpful strategy, but often isn’t enough to overcome deep personality patterns or unhealed trauma.
How learned optimism is different
Learned optimism significantly from both blind optimism and positive thinking. While it promotes a positive outlook, it doesn’t ignore the reality of negative events or situations.
Learned optimism involves recognizing and accepting when things go wrong and consciously reframing how we perceive these events. It encourages individuals to view setbacks as temporary, specific, and external rather than permanent, pervasive, and personal.
In essence, learned optimism is about developing a balanced, realistic optimism that acknowledges the negative but chooses to interpret life positively, fostering resilience and mental well-being.
Further Learning Resources
Here are several resources you could consider exploring if you’d like to learn more about the topic.
- Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman. This seminal book is the best place to deepen your understanding of learned optimism.
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck. Another influential book that explores a similar topic of the growth mindset.
- Positive Psychology course on Coursera by Martin Seligman. This course delves into positive psychology’s principles, including similar concepts to learned optimism.
- Here’s a solid YouTube video going over a review of the book
Frequently Asked Questions About Learned Optimism
Learned optimism is a concept that describes the process of training oneself to adopt a more optimistic mindset, particularly by interpreting negative events in a more positive, non-defeatist manner.
Indeed, learned optimism does work. Studies have consistently shown that people can successfully train themselves to adopt a more optimistic perspective, leading to improved emotional well-being and resilience.
There are many benefits of learned optimism, including improved mental health, improvement over depression, increased resilience to stress, a longer life span, and an overall greater well-being and satisfaction with life.
Optimism can be both innate and learned. While some people might naturally lean towards a more optimistic outlook, others can cultivate optimism through conscious effort and practice, as the concept of learned optimism suggests.
Developing learned optimism involves recognizing and challenging negative thought patterns and reframing them in a more positive or neutral light. This can be achieved by noticing how you respond to negative events and creating more empowering frames to interpret your situation.
Learned optimism can promote success. Fostering resilience and a positive mindset enhances individuals’ ability to persist in facing obstacles, thereby increasing the likelihood of achieving their goals.
Learned optimism influences behavior by encouraging more proactive, problem-solving approaches to challenges. It motivates individuals to persist despite difficulties and promotes behaviors that lead to growth and success.
Learned optimism is important because it enhances our resilience, helps us to cope better with stress, and improves our overall mental health. Promoting a positive perspective can significantly improve our quality of life.
Takeaways About Learned Optimism
Learned optimism is a concept developed by Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. In summary, it is characterized by:
- Personalization. Optimistic people assume negative events weren’t necessarily because of them, whereas they assume they were a cause of positive events.
- Pervasiveness. Optimistic people assume a successful event means they are successful, whereas they view failures as isolated incidents.
- Permanence. Optimistic people tend to see that negative experiences are temporary, whereas they might assume positive experiences will give rise to more positive experiences.
If you’d like to develop your optimism, you can remember these tools:
- ABCDE. Acknowledge a negative event. Notice your beliefs around the event. See the consequences of your beliefs. Dispute your negative beliefs. Notice how energized you feel without the negative beliefs.
- Your best possible self. Spend a few minutes envisioning your ideal future self. What are their life circumstances like, and how do they feel?
- Put in perspective. If you’re worried about a negative event, list the best, worst, and most likely scenarios to give yourself a reality check. You can even assign estimated probability percentages to each scenario.
- Break the cycle. The next time your thoughts are cycling into a negative spiral, do a different activity that helps you feel more positive.
- Reframe setbacks. When you experience a setback, list your three knee-jerk negative interpretations of the event. Then, list five positive interpretations. Then, notice how each of the eight interpretations feels.
- Concentrate on your strengths. Reflect on your strengths, and notice how they guide your life.
- Find positive people. Who are the optimists in your life? Set out a time to connect with them.
- Act locally. Find a local charity to volunteer your time to better see your positive impact.
If you are interested in continuing to foster your personal growth and empowerment, another avenue to complement your optimism is self-compassion. Developing self-compassion can create an upward spiral for your healing and growth. If you want to explore the topic more, here’s an article that might help.
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