Learned Optimism Can Change Your Days

Are you a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of person? If you asked me, I would probably confidently tell you that I always prefer to see the brighter side of things. After all, my favorite cartoon character growing up was Funshine Bear, the bright yellow Care Bear with a picture of the sun on his tummy!

But when I read this book a couple of years ago, I was unpleasantly surprised that my natural inclination was actually NOT being optimistic!

We usually think of optimism as being able to look on the positive side of anything that happens. We view optimists as people who are always “Go, go, go,” those who smile through the storms, and are quick to bounce back when something bad happens.

The opposite would be pessimism, the raincloud in every party, the one who pokes holes in everyone’s plans and always thinks of the worst possible thing that can happen in any situation.

A pessimist automatically assumes that anything negative is permanent, and that it is his or her fault. An optimist looks at something bad that happens as being a temporary setback. Which one are you?
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What is Optimism?

We usually think of optimism as being able to look on the positive side of anything that happens. We view optimists as people who are always “Go, go, go,” those who smile through the storms, and are quick to bounce back when something bad happens.

The opposite would be pessimism, the raincloud in every party, the one who pokes holes in everyone’s plans and always thinks of the worst possible thing that can happen in any situation.

But in Learned Optimism by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., the author presents a much clearer difference between the two:

Pessimists

Pessimists are people who “tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault.” They tend to define themselves by their latest failure: for example, when they are caught telling a lie, they tend to label themselves a liar right away.

Optimists

Optimists “believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case.”

Did you catch the major difference? Bad things surely happen to all of us, and it’s easy to say that when we smile through clenched teeth, we’re being optimistic. But the truth is that optimism and pessimism are more than skin-deep, not just about how we respond to negative events. Instead, the way we look at the world is defined by the thoughts that run through our mind as a result of the negative event.

To illustrate, the author tells about a new father who excitedly goes into the room of his newborn daughter. He tries calling her name, and he notices that her eyes don’t move at all in response to the sound. Starting to fret, he calls his wife over, and she also calls out to her and shakes a rattle but the baby doesn’t respond. But when the mum picks her up, she coos and gurgles just like every normal baby.

At this point, the father has gone from wondering why the baby doesn’t respond, to the conclusion that she must be deaf. The mum quickly goes over to the baby book and reads that the startle reflex develops a bit later, and sets an appointment with the pediatrician first thing Monday morning. But that doesn’t pacify the new dad, who spends the weekend unable to focus as he imagines his daughter’s life completely ruined from being deaf and cut off from everyone else.

 

Are You a Pessimist or an Optimist?

Again, a pessimist automatically assumes that anything negative is permanent, and that it is his or her fault. An optimist looks at something bad that happens as being a temporary setback, whose cause may be linked only to that specific situation.

Based on the above definition, would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? When something bad happens, are you quick to take the blame? Now, this is not about washing our hands off of responsibility. Truly it’s important to take responsibility for a failure; the difference is that a pessimist can blame himself, his whole identity, for things that go wrong, and believe that they will stay wrong.

When you fail at work, or have relationship problems, do you view the problem as something temporary, something that you can find a solution to, or do you automatically bemoan the fact that everything is ruined forever?

Personally, when I read this book, this was the hard truth that hit me: I had the tendency to think of negative events as being permanent. For example, when I get into a disagreement or misunderstanding with anyone, my mind automatically assumes that the relationship is scarred or even ruined forever. But the truth is that we all grow through conflict, and it’s never the end of the story.

 

Benefits of Optimism

When someone is quick to recognise that any setback is temporary, he enjoys the following benefits:

  • optimists usually do much better in school, university, in their jobs, and even in sports
  • they often exceed aptitude test predictions
  • they are more likely to be elected when they run for office
  • they usually have better health and age well, sometimes even live longer

 

The Problem of Chronic Pessimism

On the other hand, it may be easy just to poke fun at your friend who always seems to bring a cloud of gloom and doom everywhere he goes. But do you know that chronic pessimism has serious consequences? Here are just a few of them outlined in the book:

  • pessimists tend to give up more easily
  • they get depressed more often
  • they usually accomplish less than they would otherwise be able to
  • they tend to get physically sick more often
  • they may suffer from self-fulfilling prophecies.

 

Learning to Change Our Minds

The good news is that even if we grew up with a pessimistic view of life, it’s still possible to change the way we think. In the first part, the book takes a detailed look at these two ways of thinking. The second part deals with The Realms of Life, giving us examples of how these thinking patterns affect our work, the parent-child relationship, school, sports, and even health.

In Part 3, the author challenges us to change our mindset, which is why the book itself is called Learned Optimism. It’s a thinking pattern that we can train ourselves to have. Just as I have to train myself to see, as in the example above, inter-personal conflict as growing pains, we all need to see the world a little differently. I believe this book offers a great foundation and launching pad for changing the way we think to be more resilient and effective in our family, work, and all other areas of our lives. You can purchase it here: Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

 

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