Learned Optimism

"One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think."

- Learned Optimism, page 8

Al Capp’s satirical comic strip Li’l Abner introduced an iconic character, Joe Btfsplk. Joe walked around with a dark cloud over his head — literally. He brought misfortune everywhere he went. In one sequence, he escaped his cloud, but took it back, accepting that was just who he was: the little guy with the dark cloud over his head.

It’s common to believe that some of us are born with a sunny outlook and others are doomed to life under a dark cloud.

It’s not true.

Optimism can be learned and pessimism overcome.

A pioneer in the field of positive psychology, Martin E. P. Seligman has spent decades studying negative and positive thinking, developing practical methods to transform the former into the latter.

Whether we are pessimistic or optimistic depends on whether we see adversities as

  • permanent
  • pervasive
  • personal


  • temporary
  • specific to these circumstances
  • not our fault

Optimism, it turns out, is a skill each of us can learn.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Optimism is a Learnable Skill

"What if optimism is a learned skill, one that can be permanently acquired?"
- Learned Optimism, page 14

Seligman’s team studied pessimism by inducing helplessness in dogs. These dogs learned that nothing they did turned off the mild shocks in their cages, so even when they could escape, they didn’t.

About a third of the dogs, though, never succumbed. They couldn’t be forced to feel helpless. What if this immunity could be learned?

When helpless dogs were pulled back and forth over a small divider, repeatedly shown they could escape the shocks, 100% unlearned the helplessness.

Unlearned it so well that they were inoculated against helplessness for life.

Experiments with humans, using frustrating puzzles and noises, produced identical results. Helplessness could be learned, and it could be unlearned. Once it was unlearned, the effects were permanent.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Changing Our Belief About Adversity Changes its Consequence

"We have found over the years that positive statements you make to yourself have little if any effect. What is crucial is what you think when you fail, using the power of 'non-negative thinking.'"
- Learned Optimism, page 15

Knowing a positive perspective in the face of adversity was based on beliefs, Seligman’s team created a process to learn optimism by exploring different beliefs using a system Seligman calls ABCDE.

When you suffer some Adversity, if you analyze what you Believe about it you’ll see the Consequences as a logical result.

What if you change your Belief?

For instance, the boss asks you to rewrite the conclusion of your report (Adversity.)

If your Belief is “The boss is looking for an excuse to fire me” the Consequences will be bad feelings and poor performance.

If you changed your Belief to “This report must be extremely important upstairs” the Consequences could be determination and an excellent job.

That’s ABC: Adversity, Belief, Consequences.

D is Disputation: reasoning ourselves into accepting another Belief. I’ll cover this in more detail in insight #2.

E is Energization: what we’re motivated to do because we’ve Disputed a pessimistic Belief.

For the next two weeks, every time something goes wrong, write down the ABCs:

  • What was the Adversity?
  • What did you Believe about it?
  • What were the Consequences (feelings and actions)?

Once you’ve recognize those ABCs, it’s time to inject some Disputation into the process.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Disputing Negative Thinking by Analyzing Evidence, Alternatives, Implications, and Usefulness

"Learned optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world but through the power of 'non-negative' thinking."
- Learned Optimism, page 221

The Disputation process involves another acronym: EAIU, for Evidence, Alternatives, Implications, and Usefulness.

  • What does the Evidence say? The most effective way to dispute a negative belief is to realize it is factually inaccurate. In the example above, if you have Evidence that, in fact, the boss values you and there are no plans to park you at the curb, it’s easier to change your belief.
  • Is there an Alternative explanation? Most adversities have multiple contributing factors. Focusing on those which are changeable, specific to the current circumstances, and non-personal leads to optimistic beliefs.
  • What are the true Implications of the adversity? In a process called decatastrophizing, when we consider that the most likely negative consequence is relatively minor compared to the “end of the world” scenario we first conjured up, our beliefs lead to more optimistic consequences.
  • Finally, what if it turns out our belief is, in fact, true? Does that automatically make it Useful? Maybe blowing your diet (adversity) makes you think you’re a glutton (belief). Even if that were true, is it helpful? It’s more helpful to focus on what we can change (“I need help with my eating habits.”)

Should you decide the belief is true, and there’s nothing you can do about it right now, distraction techniques can keep you from ruminating on the adversity, which is a prime cause of pessimism and depression.

Seligman’s research began in earnest about the time I was 15 years old. If I’d known that someone somewhere was researching how we could choose to be optimists, I would have rejoiced. Also, I would have found them and forced the answer from them and changed my life.


During the past 10 years I’ve read dozens of books based on Seligman’s work and its practical application. I’ve taken a long slow road from severe pessimism and depression to a life of great optimism.

Learned Optimism is a shortcut. Using the ABCDE and EAIU tools, in a short time (I short-circuited a powerfully negative thinking pattern out of my life in less than a week) you can learn optimism.

What do you think? Is a negative perspective simply a natural consequence of a difficult situation, or can we learn to be optimistic despite our circumstances?

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Joel D Canfield

ABOUT Joel D Canfield

I'm a creative who works mostly with words, sometimes accompanied by music. I write because I have to, and I have very little patience with money and its attendant issues...
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