What is the idea behind learned optimism, and how can an optimistic perspective be of benefit in my own life?
It goes without saying that an optimistic mindset is preferred over a pessimistic mindset. Yet, many of us find times where we struggle to look at the bright side, whether that be in reference to our past actions, our current experiences, or our hope for the future. Although there are determining factors that can hinder our ability to be optimistic, such as hereditary factors and childhood experiences outside of our control, it is fortunate that anybody can learn to become more optimistic if they so desire.
Obviously, this is easier said then done. This is mainly because thinking positive thoughts all the time does not eliminate negative events out of our lives entirely. Even the most optimistic people have negative events that occur in their lives. The main difference between how an optimist and a pessimist approaches these experiences is that an optimist tends to believe that negative events in their lives are temporary, are not personalized to them, and do not apply to every facet of their lives. A pessimist takes the entirely opposite perspective.
An optimist, first off, believes that their distress is temporary and will not continue forever. This is an observation that Martin Seligman made during his early work in psychology. Interestingly, he was actually studying the contrasting theory of learned helplessness among dogs, in which dogs who were administered a shock in an inescapable situation did not even attempt to escape from the discomfort. This is the idea behind learned helplessness; that nothing can be done to change the negative events occurring to an individual. Even in the case of the dogs, those that had acquired this sense of learned helplessness did nothing to change their situation even when they were placed in a new setting where an escape from the shock was possible. They had already accepted that their distress was permanent, and not temporary. This is analogous to a person feeling that they are stuck in their current situation of their lives, and they don’t expect that anything can be done to change it. They just accept it without any sort of fight. With these findings, Seligman was able to show how a mindset of learned helplessness can make an individual feel that their distress is permanent and based on external factors. In Seligman’s observations of learned optimism, however, the individuals believe that their distressing times are only temporary, and that their is hope for a better future.
An optimist also does not personalize failures to themselves. When they fail, they tend to attribute the failure to external factors that are not entirely within their control. However, they do personalize their successes and attribute them to their hard work. This overall is a much more optimistic perspective to take. It follows that pessimists take the opposite approach. They feel that their personal failures are due to their actions entirely, and that their successes are due to external factors such as a simple stroke of luck. These thoughts are much more distressing to an individual overall. While it is important for an individual to be honest about what they can and can’t control in their lives, the optimists tend to personalize their successes to themselves and depersonalize their failures to external factors.
Optimists also tend to think that failures attributable to them are not pervasive in every facet of their lives. This idea is best illustrated with an example. An optimistic individual could receive a failing grade on their calculus exam. They would, just like any of us, be disappointed by the news. They would not, however, believe it has any impact or relation to how they will perform on their biology test the next day, and so they continue to study diligently to ace that test. A pessimist, however, would receive the same news and believe there is no use in studying for their biology exam the next day. They would think that their performance on the calculus exam demonstrates how bad they are at every subject in school, and that they should just give up entirely. When they do poorly on their biology exam because they gave up on studying, it further reinforces this belief of being bad at everything in school, and not just the one calculus exam. All in all, an optimist believes that their failures do not indicate they are bad at everything else. They don’t think these failures are pervasive to all facets of their lives.
In summary, optimists believe negative events in their lives are temporary, do not personalize to them, and are not pervasive to every component of their lives. At this time, I invite you to think about a negative event in your life you feel has brought you down recently. Consider how the event in your life is more likely than not temporary in the grand scheme of things. Also see if you can attribute the event to anything outside of things you can control. Consider these explanations as possibilities and avoid blaming yourself for the negative event. Finally, come to the understanding that this event does not apply to every facet of your life, and realize there are still several components of your life to be grateful for.
Whew, that ended up being much more than I anticipated. Still, I hope that you guys found some value in learning some commonalities among optimistic thinkers and how it can benefit their lives for the better. An optimistic perspective can ultimately help an individual to live longer, achieve a better sense of well-being, lower their stress levels, and increase their motivation. Feel free to learn more about learned optimism by clicking on the following link:
As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to leave any contributions you have to the content below. I hope that you are all doing well, and stay positive!