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Learned optimism can change your life. Here's how

September 1, 2021 - 21 min read


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What is learned optimism?

A summary of Dr. Seligman’s book

Where does the theory of learned optimism come from?

5 benefits of learned optimism

Can optimism be learned?

Learned optimism vs. learned helplessness

Explaining Seligman’s ABCDE model

The learned optimism test

A contrary opinion: criticism on learned optimism

How to improve optimism: 3 exercises

The effects of adopting learned optimism in your life

We all know one of those people who is endlessly optimistic. They’re the ones you might jokingly refer to as “Pollyanna” or accuse of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.

But have you ever considered how your life might be different if you took a page out of their book and learned to be a little more optimistic? If you knew it would change your life for the better, would you be willing to give it a try?

The good news is that even the most pessimistic people can cultivate more optimistic behavior.

So, let’s look a little more closely at what learned optimism is and why it matters. Then we’ll cover some practical tips and exercises to help you become more optimistic.

What is learned optimism?

Learned optimism is a process by which you learn to recognize habitually negative thoughts, and then challenge them. Challenging your pessimistic ideas helps you reframe them into new, more positive beliefs.

Learned optimism can improve your mood and well-being, boost your self-esteem, and encourage more positive behaviors. This makes it a useful strategy for overcoming difficult situations or navigating tough times. It also helps you to improve your overall mental fitness.

Over time, learned optimism can help you improve your outlook on life and see yourself and the world in a more positive light.

The term was first coined by one of the founders of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman. But why is optimism so important? Let’s find out.

A summary of Dr. Seligman’s book

In 1990, Seligman published his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. In it, he described the concepts of learned optimism and learned helplessness.

His early research into learned helplessness showed that optimists handle bad events better than pessimists. He also discovered that both styles could be learned and began focusing on learned optimism.

Dr. Seligman described three main differences between optimists and pessimists:

  1. Permanence: Pessimists see negative events as permanent. Optimists view them as temporary.
  2. Personalization: Pessimists blame themselves when things go wrong. They link good events to external factors or luck. For optimists, it’s the opposite.
  3. Pervasiveness: Pessimists have a gloomy outlook on every area of their lives. Optimists don’t let failure in one area of their life affect how they feel about another.

Seligman also discovered that optimists enjoy better physical and mental well-being. He found that optimism is often a deciding factor in professional sports and that optimism can be more important than talent when it comes to career development.


Where does the theory of learned optimism come from?

Early on in his career, Seligman researched the concept of learned helplessness using dogs.

Seligman and his colleagues administered electric shocks to the dogs. One in three refused to submit to their fate no matter what the researchers did to them. They showed a level of resilience that the other dogs lacked.

Later, a friend pointed out that it was not learned helplessness but learned optimism that he was studying.

When Seligman shifted his focus to optimism, he realized the implications and many possible benefits it could have. This created a paradigm shift in his work and inspired him to write his book on learned optimism.

The book and his ongoing work led to the rise of a new branch of psychology known as positive psychologySeligman went on to become the president of the American Psychological Association.

Recognizing the importance of working through past trauma, he popularized the idea that focusing on authentic happiness is just as important.

This doesn’t mean being unrealistically optimistic, though. It’s more about approaching bad things with a positive outlook rather than a negative one.

But what are some of the benefits of learned optimism?


5 benefits of learned optimism

Increasing your optimism levels can help you make positive changes and increase your levels of happiness. Below are five of the main benefits you can expect to see when you develop an optimistic mindset.

1. Learned optimism improves physical health

According to research, optimism is “a significant predictor of positive health outcomes.” Optimists are more likely to take a positive and proactive approach to their health.

They eat healthier, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. Pessimists are more likely to have unhealthy habits that harm their health.

2. Optimistic people have lower stress levels

The ability to face challenges with a positive attitude means that optimists experience less stress. They are also more resilient, meaning they can handle their stressors better than pessimists. They may even thrive in stressful situations.

For example, when faced with a challenge at work, an optimist will take a problem-solving approach and use stress management techniques to keep their emotions in check. This gives them a sense of control over the outcome, thus reducing their stress levels.

3. Learned optimism helps you live longer

Since optimists are more resilient to adversity than pessimists, it stands to reason that they also live longer.

Chronic stress is a risk factor for many diseases that can shorten life expectancy, such as heart disease. And the proactive approach that optimists take toward their health also leads to greater life expectancy.

4. Learned optimism improves your mental health

Optimistic people report having greater mental fitness than those who tend to be more pessimistic.

Looking at things in a more positive light can give you a more balanced view of a situation. It can also help relieve symptoms of poor mental healthstruggles such as anxiety and depression.

5. Learned optimism increases your motivation levels

Learned optimism can help you stay motivated because when you believe you can achieve your goals, you’re more likely to continue to pursue them.

Optimists have a growth mindset and tend to view challenges as opportunities to learn and improve. Pessimists are more likely to give up due to their negative beliefs about their ability to achieve their goals.


Can optimism be learned?

You may think you’re either born naturally optimistic or naturally pessimistic, and that is partly true. Genetic predisposition does play a role: if your parents are optimistic, then it’s more likely you will be, too.

However, our levels of optimism and pessimism are also influenced by childhood experiences. This may include the family’s emotional or financial stability. People from challenging backgrounds can develop negative self-talk and a pessimistic mindset.

But according to Seligman, learning optimism is possible even if you’re more naturally pessimistic. Developing certain skills, including learning how to reframe your thoughts, can help you become more optimistic over time.

Learned optimism vs. learned helplessness

Seligman first defined learned optimism as the opposite of learned helplessness. Both are explanatory styles, meaning they describe how people explain the events in their lives.

People with an optimistic explanatory style view their challenges as being caused by external forces. People with a pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to see themselves as the problem.

These two different perspectives influence the way people act when faced with obstacles. Pessimists use avoidant or escapist strategies rather than facing their challenges head-on.

A pessimist feels powerless to change a situation. This means they give up easily as they believe no action they take can make a difference. Pessimist thinking is partly a genetic characteristic. But it can also be caused by adverse childhood experiences.


Explaining Seligman’s ABCDE model

Seligman believes that it’s possible for even the most pessimistic person to change their explanatory style. He proposes the ABCDE model as a way to change your mental habits.

This model builds on the work of cognitive-behavioral therapist Aaron Beck and the ABC approach developed by rational emotive behavioral therapist Albert Ellis. Both approaches focus on identifying and challenging negative thoughts.

Seligman’s ABCDE model stands for:

  • Adversity
  • Belief
  • Consequence
  • Disputation
  • Energization

Let’s take a look at how to use it in practice.


Think of a recent challenge you’ve faced in any area of your life, for example, getting passed up for a promotion you worked hard for.


Make a note of any negative beliefs you might have about that event, such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’ll never get promoted.”


Think of any actions you might have taken as a consequence of these beliefs. For example, you may have failed to put yourself forward for a subsequent promotion as a result of imposter syndrome.


In this step, you dispute your negative beliefs. Think of examples that prove them wrong. For example, you might think of positive feedback you received from your boss about your work or a recent achievement you’re proud of.


Make a note of how you feel after challenging your beliefs. You might find you feel more energized and motivated.


The learned optimism test

Chapter three of Seligman’s book on learned optimism contains a learned optimism test. This is a set of 48 questions, each with two possible answers.

Selecting the most relevant answer to you helps you assess your explanatory style. The test focuses on the three aspects of explanatory styles: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. You can take an online version of the test here.

A contrary opinion: criticism on learned optimism

By now, you understand the benefits of optimism. But like anything, too much of it can be a bad thing.

Some research suggests that when taken to the extreme, optimism can cause toxic positivity. This is when positive thinking goes too far and can be damaging to people facing difficult situations.

Having too much optimism bias can also lead people to take risks because they underestimate the level of danger involved. Having too much bravery isn’t necessarily a good thing.

How to improve optimism: 3 exercises

Use these three exercises from Dr. Seligman’s learned optimism book to develop an optimistic explanatory style.

1. Your best possible self

This exercise requires you to use your imagination and envision a future in which you have achieved the best possible outcomes in your life. You might want to write about your career, health, relationships, or even where you want to live.

This exercise boosts mental well-being and may inspire you to take new actions or simply open your mind to new possibilities. Make a note of how you feel before and after this exercise.

2. Put it in perspective

In this exercise, think of a problem you’re currently worried about. For example, you might be worried about your business going under.

Start by imagining the worst possible scenario. In this case, it could be having to declare bankruptcy.

Then imagine the best possible outcome, such as business picking up to pre-crisis levels and beyond.

Next, think about the most realistic outcome. It might be that things continue to be difficult for a while but eventually return to normal.

Finally, create a plan for the most realistic scenario. This could look like taking out a loan or restructuring your business to meet new demands.

3. Distraction

Sometimes it can be difficult to break the loop of negative thoughts that seem to play on repeat in your head. When that happens, distraction can be a useful tactic to help you break the cycle.

Seligman suggests three ways to distract yourself:

  1. Startle yourself. Make a sudden loud noise, snap a rubber band on your wrist, or read a notecard with the word “Stop” on it.
  2. Shift your attention. Pick up an object and observe it in detail. Look at it, feel its texture, smell it, or even taste it. Try to notice as many details as possible. Alternatively, look around the room you’re in and describe it to yourself in detail. Notice the light, colors, sounds, and smells around you.
  3. Schedule  time. Think about your negative thoughts, for a bit. Grab your diary and choose a time.  When that time comes, sit down and think about them — if you still need to. Then once you are done, let those thoughts go.


The effects of adopting learned optimism in your life

Learned optimism has many benefits, particularly for those who may naturally tend to have a more pessimistic or helpless approach to life.

Changing your thought patterns can make you more resilient to shocks and help you find creative solutions to problems. It can also improve your health, relationships, and career.

The best thing about learned optimism is that no matter how pessimistic you are, it is possible to cultivate a more positive mindset.

Use the ABCDE model and the exercises mentioned above to challenge and change your pessimistic thoughts.

And, if you need further support on your journey to optimism, get in touch with one of BetterUp’s expert coaches to discover how they can help you.

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Published September 1, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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