Optimism – The Science Behind Why You Want to Develop It (“Learned Optimism” by Martin E. P. Seligman)

Martin Seligman

Reknowned as the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman explains to readers of his book, “Learned Optimism” his twenty years of clinical research into how optimism is a skill that every one can develop.  His studies provide evidence as to why we would want to cultivate a more optimistic view on life as it enhances our performance at work, school, and even our physical health.  This post explores the factors that influence how optimistic or pessimistic you are and an overview of the different facets of life that are affected by these two contrasting outlooks.

Optimism vs. Pessimism

Let’s first define the underlying characteristics of optimism and pessimism.

“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….Such people are unfazed by defeat.  Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.” – Martin Seligman

I think that about sums it up pretty clearly.  Let’s dig a little further into two key concepts that explain exactly individuals mentally breakdown challenges and setback that greatly influence their overall level of optimism or pessimism.

Learned Helplessness & Explanatory Style

The first concept is what Seligman refers to as learned helplessness.  He defines it as :

“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter. ” – Martin Seligman

The second concept is called explanatory style, which is :

“…the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen.  It is the great modulator of learned helplessness.” – Martin Seligman

In other words, the way in which you tell yourself “why things happen the way they happen” very much determines the level of “helplessness” you react with to a challenging situation.  The greater amount of “learned helplessness” you cultivate, the more pessimistic you generally are.

“An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness.  Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you become, or how energized, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats.” -Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman

At this point, I think it is worth getting an overview of the key differentiating factors between an optimistic and a pessimistic explanatory style.

Permanence, Pervasiveness & Personalization

There are three concepts that Seligman’s research showed that make up an individual’s explanatory style (ie. how one understands and explains to themselves around bad events or failures that happen).  They are as follows :

“Permanence – Permanent vs. Temporary.  People who give up easily believe the causes of bad events that happen to the are permanent…People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary…If you think about things in ‘always’ and ‘nevers’…you have a permanent, pessimistic style.  If you think in ‘sometimes’ and ‘latelys’, if you use qualifiers and blame bad events on transient conditions, you have an optimistic style.” – Seligman

Martin E.P. Seligman

People who think more permanently about their setbacks and challenges tend to give up more easily because they feel defeated before they have even started.  It is based in a sentiment that no matter what happens, nothing changes, so why bother?  For example a pessimistic permanent statement would sounds like “You are always rude.” vs. “You don’t respect me when you are in a bad mood.”

“Pervasiveness – Specific vs. Universal.  People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area.  People who make specific explanations, may become helpless in that one part of their lives yet march stalwartly on in the others.” – Seligman

People with a pessimistic pervasive style say things like “Everyone is selfish and greedy” vs an optimist’s view like, “Peter likes to count his pennies and is not very generous.”  Or, “I am stupid.” which is pessimistic and pervasive vs. “I really suck at long division.” which is more specific statement.  People who are pervasively pessimistic may lose a job, for instance, and let that setback affect all other areas of their life : neglect their physical health, ignore their relationships, and stop learning.

“Personalization – Internal vs. External.  When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves (internalize) or we can blame other people or circumstances (external).” – Seligman

Although people who do not personalize or internalize things when setback happens, this isn’t an argument for shirking personal responsibility.  However, Seligman does state a caveat to this rule in the case of depression.  This is because people suffering under depression tend to take a very skewed and unfounded burden of blame and responsibility.

Optimism & Everyday Living

So now we have the scientific definitions and framework from which Martin Seligman has researched and based his many studies upon.  But how does our relative optimism or pessimism really factor in and impact our daily living?  Not just when it comes to the huge and devastating failures, loss or challenges in life–but even the everyday, seemingly insignificant obstacles that are part of being human and living out life?  Here’s a brief look at some of the “realms of living” that Seligman explored in his research with relation to optimism :

Success at Work – There are three elements of one’s explanatory style that Seligman’s research has demonstrated to be a good predictor of one’s success in a demanding and challenging job : aptitude, motivation and optimism.  In general, optimisms–even those with less aptitude–persisted and never gave up which lead to improved skills and results. f

ParentingA child’s explanatory style is found to be largely influenced by three main sources : their parents’ (especially mother’s) explanatory style, criticism from adults (ie. teachers, coaches, parents), and children’s own life crises.

School –  This is a summary of what Seligman and his research team found out about children and their achievement in school with regards to optimism

Pessimistic explanatory style. Children who see bad events as permanent, pervasive, and personal will over time get depressed and do badly in school.
Bad life events. Children who suffer the most bad events–parents separating, family deaths, family job loss–will do worse.” -Seligman

Sports – Generally speaking, individual athletes and sports teams who have a more optimistic explanatory style go on to win more often.  Optimism is not something everyone knows how to do.  However, the research has also shown that when you can train athletes to change from a pessimistic to an optomistic explanatory style.  And, when you do they will find greater success.

Health – Scientific evidence seems to indicate that people with a more optimistic explanatory style enjoy healthier lives because of  four main hypothesized factors : 1) more active immune systems; 2) a greater likelihood that they would maintain healthier lifestyles and seek medical advice; 3) experience fewer life crises ; 4) maintain meaningful relationships & have a social support system.

“There is a plausible chain of events that starts with bad life events and ends up in poor health.  The chain begins with a particular set of bad events–loss, failure, defeat–these events that make you feel helpless….everyone reacts to such events with at least momentary helplessness, and people with a pessimistic explanatory style become depressed.  Depression produces catecholamine depletion and increases endorphin secretion.  Endorphin increases can lower the activity of the immune system.  The body is at all times exposed to pathogens–agents of disease–normally held in check by the immune system.  When the immune system is partly shut down by the catecholamine-endorphin link, these pathogens can go wild.” – Seligman

Martin Seligman

In Conclusion…

As the father of Positive Psychology, it is no surprise that Seligman’s book is largely biased towards the benefits of adapting a more optimistic explanatory style.  However, what I really appreciate is that the past twenty-five years of his life has been dedicated to researching how this phenomenon really works in real people’s lives.  I also find it encouraging that we aren’t born with a set amount of optimism in us.  It is a skill that can be learned, cultivated and developed in anyone.  It, of course, takes a deliberate and conscious effort on our part, but as evidenced in his numerous case studies, is absolutely possible, and with remarkable results.  I’ve considered myself to be a fairly optimistic person.  However, upon taking a quiz in Seligman’s book scoring my explanatory style, my thinking tends to lean towards more pessimism!  Since reading his book, I have been very conscious of the things I say to myself and in front of my children.  For instance, I noticed that when I am particularly frustrated or irritated I will make more pervasive, general comments about my own character, or theirs.

I would highly recommend pickup up Martin Seligman’s book, “Learned Optimism” and taking his quiz.  There is also a quiz for children.  What do you think your explanatory style is? How do you think it has affected your personal or professional life? Please share you thoughts and comments below.

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