Are you an optimist? Or are you a pessimist? If you think “Why does it matter?” think again. Not only does it influence various aspects of your life, but you can also actually learn to become more optimistic. And you should, because the skill of being optimistic will impact your health, your success, and your relationships.
Martin Seligman provides us with a test to determine our personal level of optimism or pessimism, tools to become more of an optimist and he teaches us about the pros and yes, also the cons of being an optimist. Seligman describes a lot of the experiments in detail and he shares many stories about the development or background of the theories.
This book is not about fancy techniques on how to appear more optimistic to impress other people or to crush your next meeting, it is about real inner work that can and will improve your life.
About Martin E. P. Seligman
Martin Seligman is a Professor of Psychology in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychology, the father of what is called “positive psychology” and he introduced the concept of learned helplessness.
Besides being among the most cited psychologists of the 20th century, he is the author of many self-help books such as “Learned Optimism”, “Authentic Happiness” and “The Optimistic Child”. What separated his early work from the rest of the psychology community is the fact that instead of just treating negative symptoms to get patients to be “normal” or neutral again, he focused on providing tools to fix the problem while increasing patient’s happiness.
A lot of today’s “Happiness Science” is based on his research or at least heavily influenced by his work. And in case you are his friend, you are allowed to call him “Marty”.
Learned Optimism Book Summary
First, let’s start with a little definition. A pessimist believes he/she is the reason for the bad things that happen. They also believe the suffering will last long. An optimist believes outer circumstances are the reason for his/her suffering.
They also tend to see the current suffering as a short-term event. Important for us to realize is that a pessimist can become an optimist. Later we will learn why we should put in the effort to do so.
The Science of Optimism
Optimism is not positive thinking! It is avoiding negative thinking during setbacks. Seligman introduced 2 concepts that help us understand his view on optimism:
1) Learned helplessness
Learned helplessness describes a giving-up reaction during setbacks. It is the mindset of believing no matter what you do, it doesn’t matter. You are not in control and the future is not in your own hands.
Unfortunately, this is the mindset most of us operate on. We “learned” it by finding more and more evidence of how we are not controlling the outcome of situations. The saddest part is that once we convinced ourselves of our own helplessness, we don’t even bother trying to improve our situation anymore when it counts. We gave up control and were also responsible for our own destiny. This helplessness lies at the core of pessimism.
2) Explanatory style
The explanatory style is the tool we can use to handle our learned helplessness by making it a habit to explain to ourselves why things happen, how it is not our fault and how we are still in control. It is a skill that can be learned and as depression is on the rise in our western society, it is a skill that SHOULD be learned and practiced.
There are three dimensions of the explanatory style:
Permanence: Are or aren’t the bad things that happen permanent? Do you believe the suffering is temporary or everlasting? Is it a short setback or will you never be able to climb out of the hole? The way you answer this question will determine your motivation to get back on your feet after a setback.
Pervasiveness: How does a setback in one area of your life influence other areas? Will your relationships suffer when you lose your job or can you use your family and friends as a safety net that will help you during those hard times? In other words, is the suffering specific (only your job life suffers) or universal (your whole life goes down the drain)?
Personalization: Do you blame yourself or others for your suffering? Was it your mistake or somebody else’s? The answer to this question has a direct influence on your self-esteem.
Personalization is actually less important than the other two dimensions. It is about how you FEEL while permanence and pervasiveness are about what you will DO. Furthermore, it is good to be an optimist, but always blaming others and never taking responsibility will not be a sufficiently long-term approach.
Furthermore, pervasiveness and permanence are more important, as they directly influence one crucial aspect of our outlook on the future: Hope! Your level of hope does all the difference in how you will act and handle tough situations.
Please notice that even the most optimistic person in the world will feel temporarily helpless when he/she fails. But optimism is not about never feeling bad, it is about recovering faster.
Obviously, drugs can help us relieve depression, but only temporarily. They fail to initiate underlying change. Cognitive therapy on the other hand can. There are 5 tactics to cognitive therapy:
1) Recognizing the negative, automatic thoughts
2) Disputing the negative thoughts by finding contrary evidence
3) Learning to find different reasons or explanations
4) Distracting from negative thoughts
5) Learning to recognize and challenge the negative assumptions
Later we will learn a simple and easily applicable technique we can use on our own to become aware and dispute the negative thoughts. But first, let’s see why we should even bother.
The Advantages (and disadvantages) of Being an Optimist
Being an optimist comes with a lot of advantages:
– Generally, optimists do better in life, as they don’t give up so easily.
– Optimistic salesman outperform their pessimistic colleagues by far.
– Optimistic sports teams do better.
– Optimistic children are more successful.
– Optimism can even enhance your health and immune system.
Please note that there are not only advantages, like everything in life, there are disadvantages to optimism too.
Pessimists tend to be way more realistic and accurate about future outcomes. Optimists often have an unrealistic worldview. While this can be helpful in many situations, as optimists will often try harder for a longer period of time, this unrealistic approach can be harmful in high-stake situations.
Optimists believe to be in control even when they aren’t. Just like a business needs both, optimists (researchers, planners, developers) and pessimists (business administrators, finance people, safety engineers), you will need both qualities in your life, depending on the situation.
So when to be optimistic and when not to be? We can use the following guideline to decide when it is a good thing to be optimistic and when we should rather go easy on acting and being all too positive.
Times to use optimism:
– In achievement situations just as selling a product, writing a report, or in a sports competition.
– In times of concern just as fighting depression or whenever we need to keep up our morale.
– Whenever we want to inspire others during a presentation or a team meeting.
Times not to use optimism:
– Planning for risky and/or uncertain future.
– Supporting people who go through tough times.
You don’t want to have an overly optimistic surgeon performing an operation almost carelessly and you don’t want to be the guy who tells a highly depressed person to “just cheer up because life is going to be wonderful”. Besides that, you can use optimism as a tool to improve your life and the lives of others.
So now let’s learn what we can do on our own to improve our level of optimism.
The ABC of our Inner Monologue
ABC describes what happens during a negative inner monologue.
A is adversity
B is belief
C is consequence.
It is important to understand the connection of A, B, and C and to understand how our life operates on this process. So let’s use an example:
A for adversity = We fail to stick to our diet while being out with our co-workers.
B for belief = We believe our diet is ruined and that we are weak. We start to believe we are not only weak about our diet but weak in general and that we, therefore, don’t deserve anything good to happen to us.
C for consequence = We feel miserable about ourselves. Our feeling of weakness comes with a feeling of not being in control.
Before we can learn how to change our mindset, Seligman recommends recording our own ABCs over several days to gain a better understanding of how and when we fall into this trap.
Once we’ve done that, we can turn the ABC into an ABCDE.
D is distraction or dispute
E is energization.
Let’s start with D as a distraction: This simply means that we catch ourselves ruminating about what we did and consciously stop it. It is important to note how ruminating will actually increase the negative feeling we have. Sometimes distracting ourselves by consciously doing something else will work, but sometimes it won’t, especially with strong negative feelings.
More powerful is D as dispute: Here we will find arguments against the beliefs. It is about realizing that believes are believes and not facts. For disputing our beliefs effectively, we need 4 things:
Evidence: Showing that the beliefs are factually wrong. In fact, what you ate while being out with your co-workers was actually healthy and low on calories, so you didn’t even fail to stick to your diet.
Alternatives: Even without such evidence, there might be several causes for what you have done. You might not be weak, but rather missed lunch that day so naturally, you would have to eat something that day. It would have been unfriendly to not eat something as you were invited and you value being social in that moment more than sticking to a diet no matter what. You should always focus on changeable, specific, and non-personal alternatives.
Implications: Ok, now what if there weren’t any real alternatives. Lying to yourself is not a solution, so sometimes we have to face the fact that we were weak and we failed to stick to our diet. So what?
That does not mean our diet is over. Diets are about changing the lifestyle, not about never enjoying a meal with friends ever again. As you see, this is all about decatastrophizing. Will you never lose weight because of one meal? Really?
Usefulness: If all fails, just ask yourself how useful a negative belief is. If a belief does not empower you, get rid of it.
The E for energization is about realizing how distraction and disputing negative believes will make you feel better. Realizing you just had a cheat meal with friends and that you just enjoyed life does not mean you won’t reach your goal.
Now besides going through the ABCDE process on your own, you can actually practice with another person. This person should be somebody you trust and like. The task of your sparring partner will be to come up with reasons why you failed and why you should feel bad about yourself and you will dispute his or her arguments.
After you are done, you can switch roles and help your partner practice disputing. Do this exercise regularly and it will become a habit in your everyday life.
Personal Thoughts and Putting Knowledge Into Practice
I considered myself a fairly optimistic person when I took the test in the book. I was quite sure to end up on the optimistic side of the spectrum, but the results were different. Even though I am quite neutral with a slight tendency to optimism, I have a lot of areas with pessimistic tendencies, even slight levels of depression.
This did not only surprise me, but it scared me a little bit and I admit that it also hurt my ego. I am the guy in the office or at parties who tells everyone that it will all be fine and that the future will be awesome if we just try our best.
But a result is a result and after reading more about the science of learned helplessness I had to admit that the results were right. After accepting the reality, I began to use the techniques in my work life. Having a stressful and demanding job in a very competitive industry makes it the perfect place to test the tools provided by Martin Seligman.
I found that the techniques are easy to learn and easy to use. The only problem is to be aware of your inner monologue and to catch yourself slipping into the pessimistic mind-frame. Another important takeaway for me personally was when NOT to be overly optimistic.
I would recommend the book to everybody who likes scientific books. But even if this might seems to be too dry, I suggest giving the techniques a try and see how this can improve your outlook on life and your level of happiness.
To purchase The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz on Amazon, click here.