optimism can be learned

As posted last week, Aaron Beck pioneered the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This approach was a major change to helping depressed patients focus on underlying negative beliefs. It upended traditional psychoanalytical theory and opened up a powerful new field of treatment.

University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, Martin Seligman built on CBT theories and approaches. He began his distinguished psychology career in the late sixties studying pessimism, learned helplessness, and depression. In 1990 Seligman published his seminal book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. It’s loaded with extensive and solid research drawing from and advancing CBT — within the larger field of cognitive behavioral therapies. Learned Optimism proved that “optimism is essential for a good and successful life.”

At the core of Seligman’s findings are the interconnected concepts of “learned helplessness” and “explanatory style.” Seligman explains, “Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.” Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness. An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness.”

Learned Optimism is one of my all-time favorite books on personal growth and self-leadership. It laid the foundation for the new and rapidly growing field of Positive Psychology founded by Martin Seligman. This is the study of positive emotion, positive character traits, and positive institutions to raise the importance of psychological health around the world. This involves changing our focus from what’s wrong or where we’re lacking to building on our strengths and what brings us the deepest meaning and purpose.

Here are a few key points from Learned Optimism showing how we choose the frames that create our reality:

  • Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling and create a downward spiral — often into depression.
  • Depression is a symptom of conscious negative thinking and does not come from underlying disorders, unresolved issues, unconscious anger, or brain chemistry.
  • Pessimism is not fixed and unchangeable. Anyone can become optimistic by learning a new set of cognitive skills.
  • Our thoughts aren’t just reactions to events; they often change what causes or follows those events.
  • Self-direction rather than outside forces explains our actions and gives us control over our lives.
  • For the first time in history, many people have a significant amount of choice — societal rights, in fact — and personal control over their lives.
  • During a time of dramatic increases in material wealth, severe depression is ten times worse in North America than fifty years ago.
  • We all have automatic thoughts or styles of explanation that we try to impose on others for the good and bad events in our lives.
  • Our explanatory style develops in childhood and determines whether we’re pessimistic or optimistic (wallowing, following, or leading ourselves and others).
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy can permanently reset our explanatory style to optimism, with a low relapse rate.
  • Attitude, motivation, and optimism are key predictors of future success.
  • Sports teams with optimistic explanatory styles perform better.

Seligman’s found that “the key to disputing your own pessimistic thoughts is to first recognize them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life was to make you miserable.”

To see beyond what is, to what could be, we need to become “learned optimists.” It starts by working with our teams or on our own, to “reframe” negative situations and problems by looking for the improvement opportunities buried in them.