WellbeingHub learningoptimism

Learned optimism

Can you learn to have a positive outlook? And if you could…how would that change your life?

This piece is about the concept of Learned Optimism and its benefits on enhancing our well-being. If you want to lead life from a ‘glass half full’ perspective, then read on to learn more.


Our brains pick up negative information faster than positive information because we are wired to protect ourselves. The key difference between people who are happy and those who are not, is that happy people lean more towards optimism. Essentially, they’re able to see the glass half full instead of half empty.

Can you learn to have a positive outlook? And if you could…how would that change your life?

What is Learned Optimism?

It is a concept from positive psychology’s founding father, Dr Martin Seligman, which argues that we can cultivate a positive perspective. With a more joyful outlook on life, he explains that we’re in a much better position to enhance our well-being. According to Dr Seligman, the process of learning to be optimistic is an important way to help people maximize their mental health and live better lives.

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.

Dr Martin Seligman’s 3 tips to Learned Optimism

  1. Permanent: No problem is permanent. When things are good, we think they will be good forever. When things are bad, we feel like it will be bad forever.  Neither one is true. Nothing is permanent; life is constant change.
  2. Pervasive: It’s not pervasive, but sometimes we react as if it is. We think that because our finances are destroyed that our whole life is ruined. It’s not true, we have our health, our relationships, and tons of other things.
  3. Personal: We think it’s us. If we were smarter, prettier, stronger, if we lived over there, if we had this family, if we were taller, thinner, richer, then we wouldn’t be in this situation. We all do this. We take it personally and think that somehow, if we were XYZ (good enough) we would magically not have these “problems.” It’s not you and it’s not personal. Problems are a part of life (suffering is optional).

When you feel your problems are permanent, pervasive and personal, it can lead to feelings of overwhelm, helplessness and depression.

Benefits of optimism

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.
  • Longer lifespan: Studies have shown that optimistic people tend to live longer than pessimists.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 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

Try this model to learn to be more optimistic: 

Adversity

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.

Belief

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." 

Consequence

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

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.

Energization

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.

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