Learned optimism

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What is Learned Optimism?

The idea of learned optimism was developed by Martin Seligman and published in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. The benefits of an optimistic outlook on are many—optimists are higher achievers and have better overall health Optimism. Pessimism, on the other hand, is much more common. Pessimists view bad events as permanent and they believe that adversity they face is their own fault. Pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity or to be depressed. In Learned Optimism, Seligman invites pessimists to learn to be optimists through learning to think about reaction to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism—that that grows from pessimism—is called learned optimism.

Seligman came to the concept of learned optimism through scientifically studying learned helplessness, which is the idea that no matter what people do, certain often negative events are still going to befall them. People who experience that phenomenon continually learn to be helpless. As he was performing tests to study helplessness further, he began to wonder why some people who were conditioned to be helpless in his lab never actually became helpless. Some subjects blamed themselves for their helplessness during the experiments, whereas others blamed the experiment for setting them up to fail. Seligman shifted his focus to attempting to discover what it is that keeps some people from ever becoming helpless. The answer was optimism. Using his knowledge about conditioning people to be helpless in the lab, he shifted his focus to conditioning people to be optimists. The result of these experiments led to defining the process of learned optimism.

Other differences exist between pessimists and optimists in the areas of permanence, pervasiveness, hope, and personalization.

Permanence: Optimistic people believe bad events to be more temporary than permanent and bounce back quickly from failure, whereas others may take longer periods to recover or may never recover. They also believe good things happen for reasons that are permanent, rather than seeing the transient nature of positive events.

Pervasiveness: Optimistic people compartmentalize helplessness, whereas pessimistic people assume that failure in one area of life means failure in life as a whole. Optimistic people also allow good events to brighten every area of their lives rather than just the particular area in which the event occurred.

Hope: Optimists point to specific temporary causes for negative events; pessimists point to permanent causes

Personalization: Optimists blame bad events on causes outside of themselves, whereas pessimists blame themselves for events that occur. Optimists are therefore generally more confident. Optimists also quickly internalize positive events while pessimists externalize them.

Anyone can learn optimism. Whether currently an optimist or a pessimist, benefits can be gained from exposure to the process of learned optimism to improve response to both big and small adversities. A test, developed by Seligman, is used to determine an individual’s base level of optimism.

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