By Kendra Cherry
Learned optimism involves developing the ability to view the world from a positive point of view. It is often contrasted with learned helplessness. By challenging negative self-talk and replacing pessimistic thoughts with more positive ones, people can learn how to become more optimistic.
There are a number of benefits to becoming a more optimistic person. Some of the many advantages of optimism that researchers have discovered include:
- Better health outcomes: A meta-analysis of 83 studies found that optimism played a significant role in health outcomes for cardiovascular disease, cancer, pain, physical symptoms and mortality.1
- Longer lifespan: Studies have shown that optimistic people tend to live longer than pessimists.2
- Lower stress levels: Optimists not only experience less stress, but they also cope with it better. They tend to be more resilient and recover from setbacks more quickly Rather than becoming overwhelmed and discouraged by negative events, they focus on making positive changes that will improve their lives.3
- Higher motivation: Becoming more optimistic can also help you maintain motivation when pursuing goals. When trying to lose weight, for example, pessimists might give up because they believe diets never work. Optimists, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on positive changes they can make that will help them reach their goals.
- Better mental health: Optimists report higher levels of well-being than pessimists. Research also suggests that teaching learned optimism techniques can significantly reduce depression.
In one study, children with risk factors for depression were placed in a training program where they were taught skills related to learned optimism.4 The results of the study revealed that children with the risk factors were much more likely to show symptoms of moderate to severe depression at a two-year follow-up. However, those who had received training in learned optimism and anti-depression skills were half as likely to develop such symptoms of depression.
Pessimists tend to believe that bad things are simply bound to happen, that they are at fault, and that negative outcomes will be permanent. Optimists, on the other hand, expect that good things will happen to them. They tend to see setbacks as temporary events caused by circumstances. Rather than giving up or feeling helpless in the face of failure, optimists view it as a challenge that can be overcome or fixed.
Optimists and pessimists tend to differ in terms of explanatory style, or how they go about explaining the events that take place in their lives. Key differences in these explanatory styles tend to be centered on:
- Personalization: When things go wrong, optimists tend to lay the blame on external forces or circumstances. Pessimists, on the other hand, are more likely to blame themselves for the unfortunate events in their lives. At the same time, optimists tend to view good events as being a result of their own efforts, while pessimists link good outcomes to external influences.
- Permanence: Optimists tend to view bad times as temporary. Because of this, they also tend to be better able to bounce back after failures or setbacks. Pessimists are more likely to see negative events as permanent and unchangeable. This is why they are often more likely to give up when things get tough.
- Pervasiveness: When optimists experience failure in one area, they do not let it influence their beliefs about their abilities in other areas. Pessimists, however, view setbacks as more pervasive. In other words, if they fail at one thing, they believe they will fail at everything.
Research has found that pessimists tend to be in the minority. Most people (estimates have ranged between 60 to 80 percent) tend to be optimists to varying degrees.
Learned optimism is a concept that emerged out of the relatively young branch of psychology known as positive psychology. Learned optimism was introduced by psychologist Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of the positive psychology movement. According to Seligman, the process of learning to be optimistic is an important way to help people maximize their mental health and live better lives.
Seligman himself has suggested that his work initially focused on pessimism. As a clinical psychologist, he tended to look for problems and how to fix them. It wasn’t until a friend pointed out that his work was truly about optimism that he truly began to focus on how to take what was good and make it even better.
Seligman’s work early in his career was centered on what is known as learned helplessness, which involves giving up when you believe that nothing you do will make any difference.
Explanatory styles play a role in this learned helplessness. How people explain the things that happen to them, whether they view them as being caused by outside or internal forces, contributes to whether people experience this helplessness or not.
A New Direction in Psychology
As a result of this paradigm shift, Seligman wrote a book focused on the psychology of learned optimism. His work helped inspire the rise of positive psychology. Seligman went on to become the president of the American Psychological Association, elected by the largest vote in the APA’s history. His theme for the year centered on the subject of positive psychology.
Psychology was only half-formed, he believed. Where there was a solid body of research and practice on how to treat mental illness, trauma, and psychological suffering, the other side that focused on how to be happy and how to live a good life, was only in its infancy. He believed that if people could learn how to become optimistic, they could lead to healthier and happier lives.
Can You Learn Optimism?
While it may be clear that optimism can be beneficial, it then becomes a question of whether or not people can learn to take a more positive perspective. Can even the most pessimistic of people adjust their worldview?
Are People Born Optimists, or Is It a Skill That Can Be Learned?
Researchers suggest that in addition to being partially hereditary, optimism levels are also influenced by childhood experiences, including parental warmth and financial stability.2
Seligman’s work, however, suggests that it’s possible to learn the skills that can help you become a more optimistic person. Anyone can learn these skills, no matter how pessimistic they are, to begin with.
Is There an Optimal Time to Develop This Optimism?
Seligman’s research suggests that it may be beneficial to teach kids optimism skills late enough in childhood so that kids have the metacognitive skills to think about their own thoughts, but prior to the onset of puberty. Teaching such skills during this critical period might be the key to helping kids ward off a number of psychological maladies, including depression.
The ABCDE Model
Seligman believes that anyone can learn how to become more optimistic. He developed a learned optimism test designed to help people discover how optimistic they are. People who start out more optimistic can further improve their own emotional health, while those who are more pessimistic can benefit by lowering their chances of experiencing symptoms of depression.
Seligman’s approach to learning optimism is based upon the cognitive-behavioral techniques developed by Aaron Beck and the rational emotive behavioral therapy created by Albert Ellis. Both approaches are focused on identifying the underlying thoughts that influence behaviors and then actively challenging such beliefs.
Seligman’s approach is known as the “ABCDE” model of learned optimism:
- Adversity is the situation that calls for a response
- Belief is how we interpret the event
- Consequence is the way that we behave, respond, or feel
- Disputation is the effort we expend to argue or dispute the belief
- Energization is the outcome that emerges from trying to challenge our beliefs
To use this model to learn to be more optimistic:
Think about a recent sort of adversity you have faced. It might be something related to your health, your family, your relationships, your job, or any other sort of challenge you might experience.
For example, imagine that you recently started a new exercise plan but you are having trouble sticking with it.
Make a note of the type of thoughts that are running through your mind when you think about this adversity. Be as honest as you can and do not try to sugarcoat or edit your feelings.
In the previous example, you might think things such as “I’m no good at following my workout plan,” “I’ll never be able to reach my goals,” or “Maybe I’m not strong enough to reach my goals.”
Consider what sort of consequences and behaviors emerged from the beliefs you recorded in step 2. Did such beliefs result in positive actions, or did they keep you from reaching your goals?
In our example, you might quickly realize that the negative beliefs you expressed made it more difficult to stick with your workout plan. Perhaps you started skipping workouts more or put in less of an effort when you went to the gym.
Dispute your beliefs. Think about your beliefs from step 2 and look for examples that prove those beliefs wrong. Look for any example that challenges your assumptions.
For example, you might consider all of the times that you did successfully finish your workout. Or even other times that you have set a goal, worked towards it and finally reached it.
Consider how you feel now that you have challenged your beliefs. How did disputing your earlier beliefs make you feel?
After thinking of times you have worked hard toward your goal, you may be left feeling more energized and motivated. Now that you have seen that it isn’t as hopeless as you previously believed, you may be more inspired to keep working on your goals.
Learning Optimism May Take Time
Remember, this is an ongoing process that you may need to repeat often. When you find yourself facing a challenge, make an effort to follow these steps. Eventually, you will find it easier to identify pessimistic beliefs and to challenge your negative thoughts. This process may also eventually help you replace your negative thoughts and approach challenges with greater optimism.
Criticisms & Potential Pitfalls
Some critics have argued that some learned optimism training programs are less about teaching people to become more optimistic and more about reducing pessimism. Other researchers believe that explanatory styles may actually have less to do with optimism than previously believed.
Other research has also suggested that optimism might also have a negative side. People who are overly and perhaps unrealistically optimistic may be prone to narcissism.5 Having an optimism bias can also lead people to take healthy risks and engage in risky behaviors because they underestimate their own level of danger.
While some research has pointed to potential pitfalls of being overly or unrealistically optimistic, most studies have supported the idea that there is a positive connection between optimism and overall health. Optimism, for example, is a predictor for better physical health as people grow older.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about optimism is that it involves skills that can be learned and put into practice. Ultimately, learned optimism is about more than just improving your well-being or warding off psychological ailments such as depression or low self-esteem. Seligman suggests that it can also be a route to finding your purpose in life. “Optimism is invaluable for a meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are,” he explains.