Over ten years ago I came across a book that caught my eye. At the time I did not recognized the author by name and I was not familiar with his work. The title, however, intrigued me and it ran through my head over and over before I actually acquired a copy of the book for myself. The author was Martin Seligman and the book was Learned Optimism.
I had always assumed that people were either born optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between. Learned Optimism was a paradigm shift for me. The notion that people could learn to be optimistic was fascinating. I quickly read the book and added it to my bookshelf.
Fast forward about ten years. I was sitting in my office and my boss dropped a book on my desk. He said that he thought I would find it interesting. As I read this new book there seemed to be something familiar in its pages. When I read Chapter 6: Optimism About the Future, the author referenced his prior work – none other than Learned Optimism. This new book was Authentic Happiness and its author was again Martin Seligman.
I finally decided to find out more about this researcher. I found that he was associated with the University of Pennsylvania. When I went to UPENN’s website, I discovered the inaugural Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program and immediately applied. I not only learned about optimism and its importance and power, but I learned how to be more optimistic.
If we listen a little harder, we can also hear a young student say, “Wow, I did great on this test, I am a good student.” We can hear an executive say, “I really struggled in that presentation, but I learned a lot and will nail it next time.”
Seligman called the way we habitually explain what happens to us as our “explanatory style.” He found that pessimistic and optimistic people have distinct ways they described the good things and the bad things in their lives. The pessimistic baseball player described his lack of skill (a bad thing) as a permanent condition and then went on to describe this condition as pervasive throughout all other sports he may attempt. The mother saw the struggles of her son (a bad thing) as a permanent condition and applied this condition to her entire work as a mother.
Interestingly, when good things happen to pessimistic people they tend to describe them as temporary and very narrowly focused. For example, if the young baseball player were to get a base hit (a good thing) in an important game, as a pessimist, he would tend to see that base hit as a temporary, passing fluke that would surely not be repeated.
Optimists and have a distinct explanatory style. When the executive struggled with the presentation (a bad thing) she recognized the struggle as a temporary thing that only applied to that particular presentation and that future presentations have the potential of being much better. When the student did well on the big test (a good thing), he described it as a permanent condition and also as a pervasive condition in all his academic work.
In a nutshell, the pessimist describes bad things as permanent and pervasive and good things as temporary and narrowly focused. The optimist describes bad things as temporary and narrowly focused and good things as permanent and pervasive.
|Describes good things as…||Describes bad things as…|
||Permanent and Pervasive||Temporary and Narrowly Focused|
||Temporary and Narrowly Focused||Permanent and Pervasive|
According to Seligman, pessimists can begin to acquire the skill of optimism by consciously doing what an optimist may do intuitively. By adopting the optimist’s explanatory style, the pessimist begins to challenge the sweeping statements they make about the bad things that are happening in their lives. Over time and with practice the pessimist learns to describe good things as permanent and pervasive. As this skill grows and becomes more and more natural the loud pessimistic voice softens.
By noticing the subtle difference in how optimists and pessimists think and describe things Seligman opened the door for all of us to change the course of our lives by adopting a more optimistic outlook. Research findings and evidence suggest that optimistic people catch fewer infectious diseases, they have better general health habits, their immune systems seems to work better, and optimistic people tend to live longer (See Learned Optimism, p. 15).
Being more optimistic is something we can all learn and it is important to living a happier life. Moving from pessimism to optimism begins by listening to what you say to yourself in good times and in bad. You are your own most trusted advisor. What is your most trusted advisor telling you?
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. 2nd edition. New York: Vintage Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2003). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.
Lone Marlin Player courtesy of ian_ransley