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Learned Optimism

By Guy Insull

"The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that 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 that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case." --Martin Seligman.

In his first research position after college, psychologist Martin Seligman was involved in a series of behavioral experiments involving dogs. Whilst his more senior colleagues expressed frustration and exasperation in the way the dogs were reacting, and in their view "hindering" the experimentation process, Seligman described what he observed in the dogs' behavior as "learned helplessness."

In other words, when faced with situations where they were powerless to change a negative element confronting them, many would simply cease trying to affect the situation. Further to this, when placed in a new situation with a different negative element, they would make no attempt to change it from the beginning. They had simply "learned" to accept that they were helpless and made no attempt to do anything about it.

However, not all dogs reacted in this way - he observed that around one in three would shrug off negative situations and continue acting to improve their lot regardless, and did not seem to carry the negative associations of one experience into future ones.

Seligman subsequently extended his studies to the field of human psychology, where he became fascinated how people could react in totally different ways to the same situation, or stimulus - some positively and some negatively. What he found was that the reaction is largely determined by how we describe or interpret what happens to us internally, or our "explanatory style".

Optimism - reacting to setbacks from a presumption of personal power:

Bad events are temporary setbacks
Isolated to particular circumstances
Can be overcome by my effort and abilities

Pessimism - reacting to setbacks from a presumption of personal helplessness:

Bad events will last a long time
Will undermine everything I do
Are my fault

What Seligman found is that just as we can succumb to learned helplessness, equally we can develop "learned optimism" by controlling our thought processes in terms of how we habitually interpret the things that happen to us on a daily basis.

In other words, do we react in a pessimistic way (my fault / these are permanent events) or an optimistic way (temporary setbacks / these are isolated experiences).

By deliberately focussing on the positive aspects of our daily experiences we can develop optimism by building positive associations with the past, rather than negative. One simple exercise he suggests to develop this habit is what he calls "Three Blessings" - simply writing down three things that went well today and why.

However, Seligman accepts that pessimism is a valuable thinking skill to apply in some situations - particularly when the cost of failure is large or potentially catastrophic. As he says, "You really don't want optimistic pilots."

In short, we have a choice in how we respond to what happens to us, and this seems to be his central message - that many of us fail to realise or accept this, and act helplessly as a result. As Seligman concludes...

"I think that what you do matters a great deal. That you are not a passive responder to stimuli. You are an initiator of plans. A lot of your troubles were brought on by yourself. You are responsible for them. And the good news in that is it also implies that the way out is not something that someone is going to bestow on you, it's something you are going to do yourself."
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