How And Why You Should Be Optimistic
In his book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., defines the difference between optimists and pessimists in the following way:
“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.”
Seligman has been studying the subjects for over 25 years and has found several misconceptions with pessimism. The first is that it is easy to know if you are a pessimist. In fact, self-identifying as a pessimist is a real challenge, and “far more people than realize it are living in this shadow.”
The second misconception that Seligman has identified is that pessimism, no matter how deeply rooted, is hardwired and permanent. However, contemporary science and research say otherwise. It indicates that pessimists can learn to be optimists “not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes… but by learning a new set of cognitive skills.”
The Benefits of being Optimistic
Optimistic people are generally more successful, both in their personal and professional lives.
Greater success at work comes from the fact that they are more energized and productive.
A study published in the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management linked learned optimism to increased sales productivity. It explained that it is the nature of selling that even the best salesperson will fail far more than succeed, so “optimistic expectations are critical to success” by helping the salesperson overcome the inevitable rejections.
Conventional thinking is that success creates optimism, but Seligman lays out evidence that shows the reverse to be true: an optimistic attitude and mindset leads to success. He also uses a salesman as an example; in the given moment where a pessimist might lose hope and give up, an optimist will persevere and break through an invisible barrier.
The inability to persevere and succeed is often misinterpreted as laziness or a lack of talent. Seligman found that people who give up easily rarely dispute their own interpretation of failure or rejection. Optimists, on the other hand, find positive reasons for rejection and strive to be better.
It isn’t just your professional life that is improved by learning optimism. During one study, Seligman analyzed sports teams and found that the more optimistic teams created more positive synergy and performed better than the pessimistic ones.
Optimism also allows you to be expansive. It opens you up to new ideas, new experiences, and new possibilities. It allows you to consider new options in all aspects of your life, and change your life for the better.
Numerous health benefits have been linked to an optimistic attitude.
One such benefit comes from reducing the effects of stress. Stress is dangerous to the body and has been linked to high levels of inflammation, weaker immune systems, headaches, and other symptoms. Optimistic people aren’t exempt from stress, but they can manage stress more efficiently than pessimistic people.
One study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research even found that patients who are more optimistic going into surgery experienced a lower intensity of pain, and had fewer physical symptoms following the surgery. The researchers concluded that “having positive expectations may promote better recovery.”
These results are echoed in a similar study published in the Journal of Loss and Trauma that links optimism with post-traumatic growth, meaning that optimistic people show better physical symptoms of recovery after a trauma or crisis.
Research suggests that optimistic, happy people live longer than their negative, pessimistic counterparts.
To prove this, Seligman recalls a study on a group of 180 nuns. The nuns proved an excellent group of people for a long-term psychological study, as the nature of their lifestyle makes it safe to assume that factors such as environment, diet, and general way of life will be identical. It was discovered that the nuns who were the most cheerful when entering the monastery also lived the longest.
“When the amount of positive feeling was quantified by raters who did not know how long the nuns lived, it was discovered that 90 percent of the most cheerful quarter was alive at age eighty-five versus only 34 percent of the least cheerful quarter. Similarly, 54 percent of the most cheerful quarter was alive at age ninety-four, as opposed to 11 percent of the least cheerful quarter.”
A different study published by USA’s National Academy of Sciences gauged the happiness of over 3,000 elderly people by monitoring their feelings several times a day. Then, five years later, the researchers kept track of how many of those people had died. The study took into account the participants’ health, age, marital status, and education level, as well as controlling for things like medical conditions (cancer, diabetes) and negative health risks (like smoking). The researchers came to a definitive conclusion: happiness is linked to a longer life.
Optimism and depression
Optimistic people also have improved mental health. A study by Seligman and the University of Pennsylvania found that students who practiced learned optimism techniques reported fewer cases of moderate to severe depression than the control group, as well as decreased levels of anxiety. The study also noticed that participants reported fewer health problems than the control group during the course of the workshop.
Seligman is a leading authority on sex differences in depression. He claims that women are more likely to suffer from depression because although men and women experience mild depression at the same rate, the way in which women think about problems tends to amplify them. Rumination on a problem, and particularly internally connecting it with an “unchangeable” aspect of our lives, can exacerbate the issue and lead to depression.
Seligman claims that depression results from habits of thought and that it can be beaten and avoided entirely by learning optimism.
More enjoyable life
A report published by the Positive Psychology Centre describes three routes to happiness: pleasure (or positive emotion), gratification, and meaning. Being more optimistic will help you in all three areas, ultimately leading to a happier life.
As the University College London’s Tali Sharot explains:
“Optimistic people are happier because they imagine positive events more vividly and expect them to occur sooner. This all boosts the luscious feeling of anticipation, which is greater the more pleasurable the anticipated event, the more vividly we can imagine it, the more probable we think it is to happen, and the sooner it will be happening. Of course, it makes sense that having a sense of hope and positive attitude about the future would make us more content in the present.”
Why do people view things differently?
If the benefits of being optimistic are so abundantly clear, it begs the question: Why are some people pessimistic?
A branch of psychological science called cognitive psychology offers a possible explanation.
One theory is that social learning plays a role in developing people’s mindset and behaviors. It suggests that people copy behaviors they observe in their surrounding environments. Those who have not yet developed a strong sense of identity and character, such as children, are highly impressionable to social learning.
Optimism can and should be learned from a young age. Seligman states:
“Teaching children learned optimism before puberty, but late enough in childhood so that they are metacognitive (capable of thinking about thinking), is a fruitful strategy. When the immunized children use these skills to cope with the first rejections of puberty, they get better and better at using these skills.”
One study published in the Experimental Neurobiology Journal links optimism with a proactive attitude. This theory implies that the relationship between activity and optimism is bi-directional, meaning that those with an optimistic attitude are more likely to take action. The rewards of taking action then lead to a more optimistic mindset, suggesting that optimists become more optimistic over their lifetimes, and pessimists become more pessimistic.
“Optimistic thoughts lead to active coping strategies and the rewarding results weave a sense of self-efficacy and mastery over one’s environment (internal locus-of-control), which further reinforces the proactive attitude. In contrast, pessimism facilitates a passive attitude which hinders and minimizes positive feedback, thereby further exacerbating a ‘learned helplessness’ thinking pattern and depressed mood.”
However, through cognitive training techniques, anyone can learn to be optimistic regardless of how pessimistic their attitudes and outlook may have previously been. Seligman refers to this as ‘learned optimism’. He has created a test to determine a person’s base level of optimism, which you can take for yourself here.
How to learn optimism
The idea behind learned optimism states that optimism, or a talent for positivity, can be taught and learned by consciously changing negative self-talk into positive self-talk. This style of cognitive training can change the way you think, regardless of unconscious learnings or societal conditioning.
Seligman’s work is based on explanatory theory; the theory that we make up an explanation for everything that happens in our lives, and those explanations have a strong impact on mood or behavior.
Seligman explains three binary properties for each explanation. They are personal vs. impersonal, specific vs. general, and temporary vs. permanent. These three dimensions address the following questions, respectively: Did I cause this event or did it happen due to external circumstances? How wide-reaching is the cause of this event? And finally, how long will the cause of this event last?
He determined that pessimistic people usually explain bad things as personal (I’m to blame), general (this undermines many areas of my life), and permanent (this is going to keep happening for a long time). Optimistic people, on the other hand, explain bad things as impersonal (I’m not to blame), specific (this is an isolated occurrence), and temporary (this is a one-time thing).
For example, optimists and pessimists would view a missed target at work in different ways. An optimist would explain that it was an unlucky situation (impersonal), and only a minor setback (temporary) for just one of many goals (specific). A pessimist would blame themselves (personal) and think that the whole project has failed (permanent and general).
When faced with good things happening in their lives, optimists and pessimists also have opposing explanations, the inverse of their explanations for bad things. Optimistic people explain good things as personal, general, and permanent. Pessimistic people explain good things as impersonal, specific, and temporary.
In the example of an exceeded target at work, an optimistic person might say that they are great at what they do (personal and general), and always have been (permanent). A pessimistic person would explain that it only happened thanks to favorable external conditions (impersonal, specific, and temporary).
As Seligman explains it:
“The optimist believes that bad events have specific causes, while good events will enhance everything he does; the pessimist believes that bad events have universal causes and that good events are caused by specific factors.”
It is worth noting, however, that learned optimism does not advocate that people should avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Rather, that people should not excessively blame themselves without justification. If the cause of a bad event is unclear, or there are many causes, habitually blaming oneself can undermine confidence and impair performance.
Optimists view adversity as a challenge, turn problems into opportunities, and persevere until they succeed. That is the mindset that you want to achieve.
It is excellently described in Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism:
“Explanatory style is the great modulator of learned helplessness. Optimists recover from their momentary helplessness immediately. Very soon after failing, they pick themselves up, shrug, and start trying again. For them, defeat is a challenge, a mere setback on the road to inevitable victory. They see defeat as temporary and specific, not pervasive. Pessimists wallow in defeat, which they see as permanent and pervasive. They become depressed and stay helpless for very long periods. A setback is a defeat. And a defeat in one battle is the loss of the war. They don’t begin to try again for weeks or months, and if they try, the slightest new setback throws them back into a helpless state.”
Once you have a basic understanding of explanatory theory, Seligman uses an ABCDE system to teach learned optimism:
- Adversity — This is the event that causes stress.
- Belief — This is how a person interprets the event
- Consequence — The resulting action from the belief caused by the adversity.
- Disputation — Using evidence to challenge negative thoughts from A-C.
- Energizing — Once a person is able to condition themselves into positive thoughts and behaviors in response to A, B-D will eventually lead to a person feeling more energized.
To create change in your life, you must first understand your own beliefs and reactions to adversity. An easy way to do this is by keeping a journal and recording your natural reactions to all the things that happen throughout the day. Make a note of the explanations that you create. The idea here is that you are identifying the self-defeating beliefs that you may not initially be aware of, as well as identifying the events that trigger these beliefs. (This is the A, B, and C phases in Seligman’s model.)
Analyze whether the explanations you create for yourself match an optimistic or pessimistic mindset. Determine if you explain good things as personal, general, and permanent. Determine if you explain bad things as impersonal, specific, and temporary.
The next step is to gather evidence to evaluate the accuracy of the self-defeating beliefs that are triggered by these activities. The goal is to approach each belief with an analytical mindset, and determine whether the situational facts support it or not. In each case, if your explanations do not match an optimistic mindset, use the evidence to correct them. Write down what explanation you should have given yourself so that you might remember it if you find yourself in a similar situation again. (This is the D phase, as you dispute the negative beliefs.)
Keep tracking your progress and correcting your explanations to match a positive, optimistic mindset, and over time you will begin to give these explanations naturally. The optimistic explanatory style will energize you to take action (the E phase).
Whenever you experience negative feelings, be that anxiety, depression, anger, or hopelessness, look to see if you have pessimistic beliefs underlying your passivity and negativism.
Seligman’s research shows that you can change the way you explain things. It won’t be easy and may take some time, but every attempt at this exercise you will teach you to be a little more optimistic. The research shows that the change in attitude makes you happier and more productive.
It’s also possible to create a more optimistic environment for yourself and others.
This is achieved by giving optimistic feedback. The way we give explanations to others for things that happen to them affects their mood and productivity in the same way that our own explanations affect us.
In other words, optimistic praise should be personal, general, and permanent. (“You played great, just like you always do!” as opposed to “The other team played poorly, you got lucky!”) Likewise, optimistic criticism needs to be impersonal, specific, and temporary in order for people to improve and grow.
By giving optimistic feedback, and encouraging others to do so as well, you can create a positive, high-performing environment that everyone will thrive in. Your community and culture will flourish, and you will reap the benefits along with everybody else.
The final concept that Seligman talks about in his book is flexible optimism. It is the idea that once you have learned optimism, you can choose to use the techniques whenever you need them — without becoming a slave to them. He states that:
“Learning optimism does not erode your sense of values or your judgment. Rather it frees you to use a tool to better achieve the goals you set. It allows you to use to better effect the wisdom you have won by a lifetime of trials.”
Knowing when to use optimism
Blind optimism is not always the best option. You need to consider the costs as well as the benefits of pursuing a particular goal. Optimism needs to be balanced, not necessarily with pessimism, but perhaps realism. This will keep you grounded, and help prevent you from wasting too much time, energy, money, or other resources on fruitless ideas or projects.
Seligman proposes that if the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy. He suggests that if your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future, do not use optimism. If your goal is to counsel others whose future is dim, do not initially use optimism. And finally, do not begin with optimism if you want to appear sympathetic to the troubles of others. (However, once empathy and confidence are established, the use of optimism can be beneficial.)
Optimism isn’t the only path to happiness. In his follow up book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman explains “positive psychology” and the keys to living a good life. He describes six virtues that are valued in almost every culture, valued in their own right (not just a means to another end), and are attainable:
- Wisdom and knowledge
- Love and humanity
- Spirituality and transcendence.
He then goes on to outline 24 strengths through which we achieve these virtues. Optimism is just one of these strengths, and mastering them all will “bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness.”
At the end of the day, Seligman teaches that we are our own happiness. It’s up to us to create a meaningful life and when we do, happiness is sure to follow.we can create our own happiness by taking the time to define what it means to live a meaningful life.