Learned Optimism

Summary Written by Brittnei Gaudio
"Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues."

- Learned Optimism, page 7

The Big Idea

Identifying your Explanatory Style

"Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness."- Learned Optimism, page 15

When faced with a calamity, Seligman explains that we process it in three ways. First by accessing the longevity of the setback (permanence), second the scope of its affects (pervasiveness) and third the level of personal responsibility you have for the circumstance (personalization). The culmination of this three-step process is your explanatory style, which ultimately equates to your level of optimism or pessimism. A pessimist would see a setback as long term, effecting everything they do and as all their fault, whereas an optimist facing the same setback would see it as temporary, confined and caused by some external factor, thus not their fault. The optimists create distance between the situation and themselves, making it much easier to dust themselves off and trudge forward. Unfortunately, the pessimists are more apt to falter into learned helplessness, which Seligman defines as “the give up reaction.”

Through various studies, Seligman demonstrates the extensive research that linked explanatory style to your aptitude for learned helplessness; the most persuasive was the shock experiment. His team subjected three groups of dogs to shocks. Group 1 was able to find the key to make the shocks stop, Group 2 had no power to affect the shocks and Group 3 was a control group. The same groups were then placed in an easily escapable pen, and subjected to the same treatment, surprisingly enough Group 1 escaped, yet Group 2 made no effort to escape the shocks, evidence of learned helplessness. While this study, Seligman recognizes, would no longer pass ethical standards, it is easily applied to the human variety. A person’s explanatory style and tendency towards or against learned helplessness, if left unattended, has been proven to directly impact the way a person moves through their life, the progression of their personal and professional goals and ultimately the likelihood of depression.

Insight #1

The Balancing Act

"When failure occurs, it is because either talent or desire is missing. But failure also can occur when talent and desire are present in abundance but optimism is missing."- Learned Optimism, page 13

Perhaps the most valuable takeaway for the modern day professional is the application of this newfound understanding of explanatory style and outlook tendencies to one’s career path and role choice. Seligman has conducted various studies related to hiring practices, finding indicators for success based on the applicant’s optimistic scoring. This is most evident in sales based roles, a career that is riddled with setbacks, hard walls and consistent competition. Seligman found that “optimism was the key to sales success”. Testing for optimism at the time of hiring, he evaluated the group’s success throughout their first year on the job. Perhaps not surprising at all, those who scored higher were more successful in their first year, and those who scored lowest had vacated their position.

Resiliency and perseverance defines an optimist; however, the reader also learns that optimists deploy a level of distorted reality, to inventively move past the obstacles and conjure up new alternatives. Optimists “have to dream things that don’t yet exist, to explore boundaries beyond the company’s present reach”. Seligman is quick to point out that those who don’t come by optimism naturally also have value in the workplace by applying mild or “professional” pessimism. “The company also needs its pessimists, the people who have an accurate knowledge of present realities… their role is caution, their banner is the yellow flag.”

While Seligman makes a strong case for optimism, there is no denying that a balance of tendencies applied in various spheres in life would provide the most holistic outcome. “Like the successful company, we each have in us an executive who balances the counsels of daring against the counsels of doom.”

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Insight #2

Learned Optimism

"I have found that pessimism is escapable… by learning a new set of cognitive skills."- Learned Optimism, page 5

There is a time and a place to utilize the spectrum of outlook tendencies; however, those who find themselves consistently pessimistic likely also find themselves with a higher propensity for anxiety and depression. Seligman and his colleagues conducted a longitudinal study to determine whether depression is caused by pessimism or simply correlated. This study assessed a group of children for their outlook tendency and evaluated them over a four year period. They found that “children who started out as pessimists were the ones most likely, over the four years, to get depressed and stay depressed. Those children who started out as optimists stayed non-depressed or, if they did get depressed, they recovered rapidly.”

“The good news is that the pessimists can learn the skills of optimism and permanently improve the quality of their lives”. By learning to adjust your patterns of processing, you are able to nip pessimism at the source and define a new optimistic tendency. Seligman demonstrates we can do this by incorporating the foundational theory of Cognitive Therapy and deploying disputation and distraction when and where necessary. Cognitive Therapy represents a permanent change to your explanatory style, incorporating five steps.

  1. Learn to identify negative thought patterns when you are feeling your lowest.
  2. Dispute those thoughts by suggesting evidence to the contrary.
  3. Re-attribute new explanations.
  4. Distract yourself by reverting to an alternative thought pattern, as simple as thinking of something else.
  5. Develop habits around recognizing and questioning depression causing reactions and squashing them before they manifest. Seligman argues that disputation is more affective in the long run, “because successfully disputed beliefs are less likely to recur when the same situation presents itself again.”

This hopeful and actionable reproach to pessimism in Learned Optimism is inspiring. With the growing epidemic of depression and anxiety and the propensity for negativity in our daily influences, it is imperative that we harvest the skills and manifest the habits to deploy optimism in our every day lives. Our personal sphere demands resiliency as we tackle life’s milestones and relationship hurdles and our professional sphere demands perseverance and commitment to finding a way to success. By recognizing the application of each explanatory style and committing to awareness and self-improvement, Seligman has given us the tools to live a happier, more productive life.

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Martin E. P. Seligman

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the director of the Positive Psychology Network, and former president of the American Psychological Association. Among his twenty books are Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child.

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