Learned Optimism

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Optimism and Pessimism
People with optimistic outlooks tend to be more successful than their pessimistic counterparts. Studies have also shown that pessimism is also associated with a weaker immune system. Optimistic and Pessimistic tendencies are not due to natural or biological inclinations but to cognitive explanatory styles. Cognitive techniques can be learned to shift pessimistic thinking to optimistic thinking.

Cognitive Frameworks
Optimistic or pessimistic tendencies result from individual explanatory style which has three dimensions: Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization. Permanence is the most important aspect of change. While moderately pessimistic tendencies are not usually a problem in everyday life, it can be in times of difficulties or crisis.

Negative Events: Optimists tend to view in a temporary light and Pessimists tend to view in a permanent light
Permanent (Pessimistic)
Temporary (Optimistic)
I’m all washed up
I’m exhausted tonight
You always nag
You nag when I don’t clean my room
Positive Events: Optimists tend to view in a permanent light and Pessimists tend to view in a temporary light
Permanent (Optimistic)
Temporary (Pessimistic)
I’m good with people
I was good with people at that event
I’m smart
I studied a lot for that one exam
Negative Events: Optimists tend to view in a specific light and Pessimists tend to view in a universal light
Universal (Pessimistic)
Specific (Optimistic)
All teachers are unfair
Mr. Smith is unfair
I’m ugly
I’m ugly to her
Positive Events: Optimists tend to view in a universal light and Pessimists tend to view in a specific light
Universal (Optimistic)
Specific (Pessimistic)
I’m charming
I was charming to her
I’m hardworking
I had a lot of energy that day
Negative Events: Optimists tend to view as external and Pessimists tend to view as internal
Internal (Pessimistic)
External (Optimistic)
I’m stupid
That test was unfair
I have no talent in poker
I have no luck in poker
Positive Events: Optimists tend to view as internal and Pessimists tend to view as external
Internal (Optimistic)
External (Pessimistic)
My skill helped us win
Our team’s skill helped us win
I’m very focused
There were no distractions today
How You Think, How you Feel
While certain forms of depression are biological, most appear to be an extreme case of pessimism. The symptoms of learned helplessness and depression line up according to DSM-III-R. Rumination or the tendency to keep thinking about a topic or event is likely a contributing factor. People who ruminate on negative thoughts will keep reinforcing the negative thought and explanatory style. Women tend to ruminate while men tend to engage in activities. It is believed this may partially be the cause of higher affliction among women. Participants suffering from depression who engaged in cognitive therapy relapsed less than participants taking drugs. Cognitive therapy is a set of tools that can help shift your explanatory tendencies.

Cognitive Therapy Tactics
  • Recognize Automatic thoughts and describe the permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization
  • Dispute Automatic thought with evidence to contradict initial thought
  • Learn to avoid depressing thoughts or ruminating
  • Recognize and question the assumptions you live by (e.g. I need X or else I am a failure)
Optimism in School, Work, Sports and Politics
Children with pessimistic tendencies are at a disadvantage. Children experiencing bad life events earlier on were more susceptible to depression. Children of divorce tend to do particularly bad. The issue may be due to parental fighting as children with married parents who fought did just as badly.

A study of insurance sales agents at Metlife showed that employees scoring highest on optimistic scale tended to outperform peers who scored higher on the career test. While there is always a place for optimism, pessimism tends to be better grounded in reality and is necessary for certain types roles (i.e. risk, quality, accounting).

In sports, typically, if everything else is equal, the more optimistic player will win. In high pressure situations, pessimistic players tend to give up while optimistic players tend to push harder. Coaches should keep in mind that Optimism is not something everyone knows about intuitively; Optimism can tell you when to play certain players; Optimism tells you who you should recruit; and You can train pessimists to become optimists.

Analysis of politician’s explanatory style has shown to have some predictive power.

 Optimistic Life
While Optimism greatly enhances your life, unconditional optimism will distort your world view. Areas in life where optimism is appropriate are achievement, feelings, health, and inspiring others. Areas where it may not be appropriate include planing for a risky future, counseling others’ with dim futures (initially), appearing sympathetic to others. Think about the cost of failure.

When you encounter a pessimistic thought use the ABCDE method. Pessimistic explanations set off passivity while optimistic explanations energize. When pessimistic thoughts occur you can distract yourself or dispute. Disputation is better in the long-run and the main tool on changing your view on adversity. Pull together evidence that disputes your thoughts and reframe your thinking. Distance yourself from your thoughts and understand that your thoughts may not be an accurate reflection of you. Just because you believe something, doesn’t make it true.

ABCDE Method
  • Adversity – Examine what happened
  • Belief – How did you interpret it
  • Consequences – Feelings and actions
  • Dispute – Argue with yourself on why you may be wrong
  • Energize – Think about how you feel after successfully dealing with beliefs
Distraction Methods
  • Tell yourself to stop!
  • Concentrate on some object with intense concentration engage all your senses
  • Tell yourself you will think about it later
  • Write down as it occurs
Disputation Methods
  • Evidence – This is not just about positive thinking. It is about accuracy.
  • Alternatives – Almost nothing has one cause. Focus on the changeable, specific, and non-personal causes.
  • Implications – Decatastrophize. Even if you are correct, what will be the result?
  • Usefulness – Ask yourself if the thought serves you in any way.

Flexible Optimism
Two of the main causes of increasing depression is the waxing of the self and the waning of the commons. The maximal self is about increased options, gratifications, and feelings. The Waning of the Commons describes people’s declining allegiance to religion, governments, corporations, and families. Life committed to nothing larger than yourself is a meager life. People are wired for hope and meaning. This increased individualism is increasing a personal explanatory style. Unbridled individualism may lead to more depression and meaninglessness.

Two methods to reduce the impacts of these trends are moral jogging and learned optimism (the topic of this book). Moral jogging is putting off short-term fulfillment of the ego for long-term fulfillment. Doing this is actually good for yourself. While optimism has many benefits, you must learn to practice Flexible optimism based on when it is required. Pessimism is very important since it grounds us to reality and keeps us accountable.

Moral Jogging Methods
  • Give away 5% of income to a charity personally. You must interview, give it out, and follow its use
  • Give up some activity and spend it on something devoted to others or the community: soup kitchen, school-board campaign, etc.
  • When approached by a homeless person, talk to them and try to judge if will use for a nondestructive purpose and if so give to them.
  • Write letters to people you praise and critical letters to people you are not happy about
  • Teach your children to give things away

2 thoughts on “Learned Optimism

  1. I don’t like self help at all, but I thought I give a chance to this post – when I read the comparison between the thinking patterns of pessimists and optimists it reminded to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy so I continued reading your post and then I realised that it is indeed CBT!!! It is a really helpful tool and it made wonders on my perception after I suffered from psychosis.


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