Learned optimism: how to cultivate a talent for positive thinking

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Are you more of a glass half full or half empty kind of person? Those who develop the ability to see the world from a positive point of view can reap significant benefits including improved health, lower stress levels, increased career success, and even a longer lifespan. This is the surprising power of learned optimism.

Learned optimism is the concept that a positive mindset can be cultivated, even in those with pessimistic tendencies. Heavily influenced by psychologist Martin Seligman, learned optimism is part of the positive psychology movement. By learning how to cultivate positivity in everyday life, you can improve your productivity and your mental health.

The 3 P’s of pessimism

Even though optimists and pessimists are faced with the exact same events, pessimists may be more likely to predict negative outcomes. Whereas an optimist might bounce back when things go wrong, pessimists can be dissuaded from trying again due to nagging doubts and perceived stress. This is due to a different outlook on permanence, pervasiveness, and personalisation.

  • Permanence. Whereas an optimist believes that the darker days will pass, a pessimist may ruminate during a negative time in their life and see the darkness as permanent. When knocked down, the optimist can get back up and try again, because they know that life will get better. The pessimist will lack this motivation, because they have no belief that their circumstances will improve. 
  • Pervasiveness. An optimist might experience a failure at work yet still be able to see that they have been successful in other areas, such as their personal life. The pervasiveness of pessimism leads a pessimist to believe that failure at work is evidence of, or will lead to, failure in all other aspects of life. It is therefore no surprise that this all-encompassing pessimism can lead to increased stress and an increased risk of mental health disease.
  • Personalisation. An optimist has learned to attribute success in life to their own efforts and abilities. They are also much better at finding an external force or situation to blame when things go wrong. Conversely, a pessimist will see their successes as being due to something external to them, and disappointments as being solely their own responsibility. With negative personalisation beliefs, the cycle of pessimism continues. Conversely, 

These are known as the “3 P’s of pessimism” as formulated by Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of positive psychology. Martin Seligman has been studying psychology since the 1960s, authoring more than 20 self-help books and publishing 250 articles. His research has illuminated the power of positive psychology to fight the 3 P’s of pessimism by practising learned optimism.

The benefits of learned optimism

For decades, researchers have explored the benefits of learned optimism. Seligman’s book Learned Optimism explores the power of optimism in enhancing quality of life, as well as constructive tips on breaking negative habits and nurturing a more positive internal dialogue. Some of the benefits of nurturing such a positive internal dialogue can seem surprising.

First, learned optimism leads to higher motivation. According to psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Scheier: “Optimism is a cognitive construct (…) that also relates to motivation.” With more motivation to succeed, optimists exert more effort to guarantee achievement, in contrast with pessimists who are more likely to give up.

But it does not stop there. Carver and Scheier’s research found that optimism can predict good health, better career success and superior social relations. All of these outcomes reflected the motivation an individual had to pursue their goals. Even the better social connections of optimists are likely due to their sustained effort to maintain professional and personal relationships.

Dr Heather Rasmussen and colleagues also found that optimism was a significant predictor of health outcomes. An optimist is likely to live longer, have superior immune function, and complain of fewer physical symptoms including pain. Furthermore, in those who had a positive outlook, better health outcomes were also observed in those undergoing treatment for cancer or cardiovascular disease, as well as during pregnancy.

Not limited to physical health outcomes, the cultivation of positive thinking can also improve markers of mental health. An optimists’ expectation of positive outcomes leads to upbeat feelings. Conversely, when pessimists expect a poor outcome, it can cause negative feelings including anxiety, anger, or sadness.

In one study, a group of children were identified as having risk factors for depression. Some of these children were taught the skills required to develop a more optimistic outlook. After two years, those who had not received the training in optimism were more likely to have developed moderate to severe depression. Receiving training in learned optimism could therefore protect against poor mental health.

In another study of twins, “pessimism contributed independently to the prediction of depression and [poor] life satisfaction.” A negative mindset also increased the likelihood of hostility and cynicism. 

Finally, Professor Antony Manstead of Cardiff University and his colleagues noted that there is a relationship between learned optimism and lower stress levels. Optimism is strongly associated with the presence of active coping mechanisms and positive reinterpretation of a stressful situation. Optimists also tend to be better at acknowledging the source of stress without becoming emotionally fixated on it. The mechanisms of coping associated with learned optimism therefore counteract stress.

Learned optimism can contribute to higher motivation, good physical and mental health, better career success, superior social relations, lower stress levels, which all taken together translate to a longer life span. So how can you go about learning optimism?

How to learn optimism

It is clear from the literature that learned optimism has far-reaching benefits for holistic living. Pessimism is a mindset that can feel pervasive and persistent, but it is possible to break the cycle with optimistic models and approaches that can increase self-belief and your drive to succeed: Carver, Scheier and Segerstrom confirm that anyone can learn optimism. Furthermore, optimists’ behaviours are almost always beneficial and therefore provide excellent models of living for those wishing to reap the benefits of positive thinking.

The good news is: it doesn’t have to be hard. Martin Seligman has developed a simple ABCDE approach to go from learned helplessness to learned optimism. Let’s use the hypothetical example of fearing you will fail a professional exam to explain each step of Seligman’s method. It can be helpful to grab a pen and paper while you go through these steps.

Learned Optimism
  • Adversity. Start by describing a recent experience of adversity. Be as specific and factual as possible in your description. Using our hypothetical example, you could write that you are procrastinating and having difficulty doing any preparation for an upcoming exam.
  • Belief. Then, write down all the thoughts running through your mind while thinking about this adverse experience. Record the exact sentences, for example: “I’m not good enough to pass this exam” or “I’m not cut out for this job” — don’t try to be positive at this stage, the goal is to capture the essence of your pessimism so you can change your outlook in the next steps.
  • Consequence. Now, consider the impact of these beliefs on your feelings and on your behaviour. For example: “These beliefs made me feel overwhelmed with anxiety” or “These beliefs made me procrastinate” — and don’t judge yourself, these consequences are perfectly natural given the negative beliefs they are based on.
  • Disputation. It’s time to put your beliefs into perspective. You can either find a piece of evidence that disproves the negative belief (“This belief is inaccurate because I have already succeeded at such stressful exams in the past”) or an alternative view of the belief (“Another way to see this is that I care a lot about this job, and this is why this exam is making me feel anxious”).
  • Energisation: Use the newfound energy from the disputation step to cultivate a more positive outlook on the challenge you are facing. Consider the progress you have made, and how this exercise has helped you better manage your negative beliefs.

It is important to note that optimism and pessimism are not binary, absolute concepts. In his research paper “The Neural Basis of Optimism and Pessimism”, David Hecht of University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience explains that positive and negative expectations of life are part of a continuum. Optimism in one part of your life, such as your career, can be contrasted by pessimism in another area, such as physical health.

In addition, absolute optimism should not become a goal. While pessimism can lead to avoidance behaviours and even low mood, over-optimism can lead to reckless, risk-taking behaviours. Hecht notes that to live successfully, a fine balance must be found between the two states of expectation.

This balance can be cultivated. To begin developing optimism, take time for self-reflection using the ABCDE method. Consider your natural response to difficult or stressful situations, as well as your motivation to return to better days. Even if your glass seems half-empty today, you can learn optimism to improve your expectation of the future and your drive to achieve it.

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