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Learning Optimism

By on January 15, 2007 – 2:18 pm  14 Comments

Douglas B. Turner, MAPP '06, is Corporate Vice President, Talent Management, for Balfour Beatty Construction,overseeing human resources, including leadership, management, employee training and development, team development, employee recruitment and retention, employee relations, and compliance. Full bio.

Doug's articles are here.

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.

Explanatory Style

Little League Player

Little League Player

Learning how to be more optimistic starts with listening to the way we describe both the good things and the bad things that happen to us.  Once we start listening we can hear pessimism and optimism all around us.  We can hear a child say, “Billy doesn’t like me, I am a loser.”  We can hear a young man say, “I’m not good at baseball, I am no good at sports.”  We can hear a young mother say, “My son is struggling, I am a failure at motherhood.”  We may have even caught ourselves saying things like this.

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…
The Optimist…
Permanent and Pervasive Temporary and Narrowly Focused
The Pessimist…
Temporary and Narrowly Focused Permanent and Pervasive


Learning Optimism

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


  • Senia Maymin says:

    Great article, Doug! A good summary of an entire book. The table in your article makes the distinctions clear between optimism and pessimism.

  • Doug — I love the way you reminded me of the importance of this book, and how to apply the concepts in various settings. Thanks so much for an excellent post.

  • Margaret says:

    Doug – I just spoke with a coaching client yesterday who was curious about optimism and requested that she take the optimism assessment on the authentichappiness website. I will now direct her to your article which is a nice overview. The only other aspect I would add is the notion of personalization — optmists internalize good events and externalize bad events. Take driving to a new location for the first time: If an optimist gets there with ease (a good thing) she would likely say “I’m good at reading directions.” If she got lost (a bad thing) she would likely say “The instructions were’nt clear.” And just the reverse is true for pessimists.

  • Dave Shearon says:

    Thanks, Doug! Here’s something I’ve been trying. In talking about explanatory style, I’ve started using “out there, only that, over and done with” as the counterpoint to “me, always, everything.” It’s longer than “not me, not always, not everything”, but it has a certain rythmn to it. Further, as positive images rather than the negation of images (“out there” rather than “not me”), I think it’s actually easier to apply. It’s easier to think of a black cat than to not think of a pink elephant.

  • Jeff says:


    I’ve always had a problem with permanent, pervasive, personal and always enjoyed Reivich’s me-not me, etc. Out there, only that, over and done with. I like that, too.
    Which rolls into point #2: disputing can’t be all there is to embracing optimism. I just don’t believe it. Disputing is foundational, but there has to be many strategies for building arguably one of the most powerful strengths. Any ramblings, ideas or daydreams about how to tap optimism in different ways?

    How do you apply your different terms to how you view Positive events?
    In here, everything, forever? The trick would be finding realistic claims to back up your assertions. For me, the forever part is sketchy…I just can’t find good enough evidence that because I rolled out of bed an hour early, this is going to affect my whole life for the better. Do you see the nuance here? What do you make of that?

  • Senia Maymin says:

    Dave, great point! And it has a rhythm to it – super idea.

  • Editor S.M. says: website has translated this article into Russian.
    Here it is:

  • Jeff Dustin says:

    Here is a question for Doug. How do you measure a pessimistic cognition?

    Disputing can be operationally defined and measured by observing journaling behavior and orally disputing, say into a tape recorder and so on…

    BUT, how do you actually measure a thought? Furthermore, how do you measure a mood’s duration? With a stop watch? Do you measure frequency of emotions? How about looking at assuming that anger is caused by cognitions of violiation of rights (Reivich’s method)?

    I’d love for anyone to chime in on this because I believe that assessing is so important for self-improvement efforts.

  • […] In my January writing I discussed the power of explanatory style. We tried to be conscious of how we talked about this whole cancer challenge. We chose to see it as a temporary and narrowly focused event in our lives – NOT permanent and pervasive. While some of the effects will undoubtedly linger for months or years, the shock, fear, and worry are passing. Adopting a “Positive Explanatory Style” helped us to respond well. […]

  • […] She said we are always eating. We are always taking in experiences, things around us, and we can choose how we take in things around us. We can choose the way that makes us less stressed, and we can choose the way that makes us more alive. […]

  • […] In summary, if we speak about those events that we want to distance ourselves from in the third-person and in the past and as temporary and narrow (as Doug Turner describes here), and if we speak about ourselves in the mythology that we want to grow towards and using positive role models (as Kathryn Britton describes here), we may start to tell the life story that we want to be telling. […]

  • […] 1. Increase our positive thinking. The key to thinking positively is being optimistic. The way you determine if you are optimistic or pessimistic is how you explain things. When the copy machine doesn’t work, is the world out to get you? Do all copy machines never work ever? Or is this something that sometimes happens and you can deal with it by calling a repair person? […]

  • […] Explanatory Style. Doug Turner cited explanatory style and self-talk, the stories that we tell ourselves, as one of his favorite concepts in Positive Psychology.  Turner was especially encouraged by the idea that we can change our own self-talk. […]

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