Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Learned optimism

Learned optimism:
Is it possible to tweak your natural disposition?
This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. However, pessimism is escapable.” (Seligman, 2006, p.5)

It is not always easy to know if you are a pessimist. Many people are living in this shadow and don't even realise it. This chapter will help you discover if you, yourself have pessimistic tendencies, or someone around you. It is possible to learn to be an optimist. Rather than employing cheap mindless devices, this chapter will teach you a new set of cognitive skills developed through research conducted by leading psychologists. These techniques have been rigorously validated and have helped thousands of people change lifelong habits of pessimism.

"Optimism can bouy us up when things go wrong: deluged by feelings of hoplessness and despair, optimism is the raft we cling to until the skies clear" (Paul, 2011)

Definition of optimism generally edit

"A generalized positive expectancy that facilitates the pursuit of goals in the face of adversity"- (Assade, Donnellan & Coner, 2007)

The benefits of optimism- Why you should consider a change edit

What does the research say? edit

Optimism has been related to better psychological and phyiscal well-being, particularly in times of stress (Brydon, Walker, Wawrzyniak, Chart, & Steptoe, 2009). More specifically those found to have an optimistic explanantory style have been found to;

  • Recover more quickly after a cardia-related event (such as a coronary artery bypass surgery or mycardial infarcation)with a better report of quality of life and a more rapid return to their normal lifestyle (Agarwal, Dalal, Agarwal, & Agarwal 1995; Scheier et al., 1989).
    Flag of the Red Cross
  • Have a reduced risk of cardiovascular and, general morality (Chida & Steptoe, 2008). In fact, Maruta, Colligan, Malinchoc, and Oxford (2002) found that optimism was associated with a 50% decrease in the risk of early death among 447 participants over a 60-year period.
  • Experience lower levels of distress, slower disease progression and even improve survival rates in patients with HIV (Ironson & Hayward, 2008) and some cancers (Allison, Guichard, Fung, & Gilian, 2003; Carver et al. 2005).
  • Provided you maintain a stable level of optimism over time, when experiencing a chronic illness optimism appears to represent an important personal resource that will exert a strong influence over how you experience illness (Karadema, Kynigopoulou, Aghathangelou & Anestis, 2010).
  • Protect the physical and psychological well being of caregivers (Hulbert & Morrison, 2006), undergraduate students adapting to their first college semester (Sergstrom, Taylor, Kemeny & Fahey, 1998), pregnant women (Fontaine & Jones, 1997) and even the elderly (Giltray, Zitman, & Kromhout, 2006).
  • Enagage in more positive health practices including higher levels of physical activity (Steptoe, Wright, Kunz-Ebrecht, & Iliffe, 2006), reduced levels of smoking and alcohol consumption and a healthier diet (Scheier & Carver, 1992).


Dysregulated immunity and an increased probability of experiencing cancer, autoimmune and inflammatory disease is associated with chronic stress (Brydon, Walker, Wawrzyniak, Chart, & Steptoe, 2009). However, there is emerging research that optimism may mdoerate the negative impacts associated with chronic stress. Interleukin-6 (IL-6), an inflammatory cytokine has been found to play a key role in infectious and inflammatory disease, such that circulating an increase in IL-6 is correlated to infection-related comantic and depressive symtpoms in both animals and humans exposed to bacteria or viral pathogens (Naugler & Karin, 2008). An increase in IL-6 are also seen in inflammatory type conditions that a relaibly exacerbated by stress such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and multiple sclerosis (Kemeny & Schedlowski, 2007; Naugler & Karin, 2008). In a study conducted by Brydon, Walker, Wawrzyniak, Chart, and Steptoe (2009) found that high levels of optimism have a smaller IL-6 response in stressful conditions than their pessimistic counterparts. Further, Brydon et al. (2009) review how other studies have also related optimism to smaller stress indiced increases in inflammatory markers. In essence, research has shown that optimism may promote health by counteracting stress-induced increases in inflammation.

How does optimism benefit you in your everyday life? edit

So there are clearly many studies and findings pointing to the positive effects of optimism. But you don't have to be experiencing stress or illness to benefit from a healthy dose of optimism. Here a just a few examples of how you could employ optimism in your daily life to your benefit.

Dieting edit


An ordinary effort like going on a diet may benefit from employing a bit of optimism (Paul, 2011). In undertaking the task of sticking to a diet, the odds of succeeding are stacked against us from the beginning. Paul (2011) reports that a recent study conducted in 2007 revealed that within four to five years of completing a diet, two-thirds of these people will gain back more weight than originally lost. This is a pretty grim realisation and a powerful de-motivator. However, employing an optimistic explanatory style may be the needed boost to reach our weight and diet goals. Indeed, it may be what you need to convince yourself that your goal is achievable and will fortify your resolve in resisting temptation (Paul, 2011). Even if you do slip, optimism allows you to climb back on the horse and reaffirm your goals.

Taking on a new project edit

By engaging in an optimistic mind-set, you are telling yourself that things will work out, you just have to figure out how (Paul, 2011). In fact, you may find an innovative solution that may never have been realised if you were still stuck in a pessimistic funk. If you were to realise the reality of the risk you are taking on in a new endeavour and how much work would be demanded, you may never take that chance. Optimism energizes us long enough to turn our goals into reality with all the potential benefits. Every investor and entrepreneur must believe their project will succeed and defy the odds (Paul, 2011) or else they would never engage it to begin with.

Romantic relationships edit

Love heart

Karney and Bradbury (1995) have suggested that there are certain personality dispositions that create "enduring vulnerabilities" (p. 23) that may affect how couples adapt to stressful situations. While some characteristics may prove to be a liability to the relationship, others are an enduring resource as they facilitate problem solving, strengthen committtment and fidelity and promote closeness (Assad, Donnellan, & Conger, 2007). According to Bryant and Conger (2002), optimism may be one of these enduring resources. Indeed, Srivastava, McGonigal, Richards, Butler, and Gross (2003) have reported optimism to be positively associated with relationship satisfaction. In the face of difficult obstacles, optimism maintains a sustained effort to attain goals (Assad, Donnellan, & COnger, 2007). Pessimism, on the other hand is associated with giving up and disengaging from the task (Assad, Donnellan, & Conger, 2007). Conflict, disenchantment and challenges are enevitable in marriages and committed relationships (Assad, Donnellan, & Conger, 2007). The tendency of optimists to persevere in there face of this is seen to promote a satisfying romantic relationship (Assad, Donnellan, & Conger, 2007). Assad, Donnellan, and Conger (2007) have found that optimists work to manage negative emtions that may arise in a relationship and strive to reduce any areas of disagreement. They seek to employ cooperative optimism . This is defined as a concerted effort to work with a partner to resolve disagreemtns or problems without employing negative actions such as attacking, belittling or blaming (Assad, Donnellan, & Conger, 2007). This kind of problem solving has been correlated with relationship satisfaction and stability (Christensen, 1988; Stanley, Marksmen, & Whitton, 2002). Assad, Donnellan, and Conger (2007) also found that optimists are more satisfied with their relationships and actually have more satisfied partners as well.

The history of optimism edit

Early Optimism

Many early theorists have posited optimism to be an inherent part of human nature, a part to be either praised or decried (Peterson, 2000). Indeed, early approaches to optimism were negative suggesting that "optimism prolongs human suffering; it is better to face the hard facts of reality" (Peterson, 2000, p. 45). According to Freud (1928), optimism is an illusion that makes civilisation possible. However, at the cost of our instinctual nature and ultimately the denial of reality. Freud posited that optimism exists as a part of our human nature only as a derivative of the conflict between instincts and socialization. Freud's conception of optimism had widespread impact that led most theorists at this time to consider the accurate perception of reality as the gold standard of good psychological functioning (Peterson, 2000). The statement "the perceptiuon of reality is called mentally healthy when what that individual sees corresponds to what is actually there" (Jahoda, 1958, p. 6), and similar statements, were offered by most of the influential psychologists from the 1930s to the 1960s including Allport, Erikson, Fromm, Maslow and Rogers (See Snyder, 1988 for review).

Psychologists interested in individual differences address optimism as a characteristic people possess to varying degrees. Compatible with early approaches to the idea of optimism being an inherent part of our human nature, it has been posited that our human nature provides a baseline optimism of which individuals show more versus less (Peterson, 2000). The have been many different conceptualisations of optimism as an individual difference, however, it is beyond the scope of this chapter to provide a definitive history of their antecedents. Acknowledgement will be made of some intellectual precursors to Seligman's theory (to be discussed shortly).

  • Kurt Lewin's (1935, 1951) field theory and George Kelly's (1955) personal construct theory provided influential frameworks that enable theorists to understand how beliefs, either pessimistic or optimistic, impact on a person's behaviour.
  • Julian Rotter's (1954, 1966) social learning theory and, more specifically, the generalised expectations of a locus of control, saw personality in terms of broad expectancies about the future find a legitimate ground in psychology.
  • The waning of traditional stimulus-response (S-R) approaches to learning lead to increased interest in optimism as they were replaced with cognitive accounts that emphasised expectancies (Peterson, Maier & Seligman, 1993). S-R approaches suggest that learning involves the acquisition of particular motor responses in certain situations (Peterson,2000). In the view of this approach, associations are forged between stimulis and responses with learning more likely to occur where these are linked together in experience, or contiguity. It was argued by some that the associations acquired during conditioning were strengthened by contingency rather than continuity. That is, by the degree whereby a stimuli provides a respondent with new information about their response. S-R theory concerns itself only with the temporal contiguity between the response and the reinforcer, seeing the individual as confined by the momentary occurrences of the event. Conversely, contingency theory posits that individuals are able to detect cause-effect relationships. That is, they are able to separate momentary non-causal relationships from the more enduring ones (See Waserman & Miller)
  • The beginning of the positive psychology movement. Seligman was one of the first to introduce this new way of viewing the purpose of psychology. He believed that it should be focused on strength as much as it is on weakness, and as interested in resilience as the understanding of vulnerability (Peterson, 2000). Further, the remediation of pathology should also be associated with a cultivation of wellness.

Seligman's curious discovery edit

"It's the Dogs" edit

Chihuahua Dog 001

Seligman’s concept of explanatory style was born out of the theory of learned helplessness. In Solomon’s (1967) transfer experiments, laboratory dogs were exposed to two kinds of stimulation; a high pitched tone and brief shocks. These stimuli were given in pairs as a tone and then a shock (Seligman, 2006). The general idea behind these experiments was for the dogs to associate the tone with the shock, in so far as later on in the experiment they would react to the tone as though it were a shock, with fear (Seligman, 2006). Once this pairing was made, the dogs were taken to a two-compartment shuttlebox (a large box with two compartments in it, separated by a low wall) (Seligman, 2006). The dogs were expected to learn to jump over the barrier to escape the shock (Seligman, 2006). However, this is not what occurred. Instead of jumping the barrier, the dogs just laid down whimpering, not even attempting to avoid the shocks (Seligman, 2006). Seligman concluded that these dogs has accidently been taught to be helpless (Seligman, 2006). During the initial stage of Pavlovian conditioning, the dogs experienced the shocks regardless of what actions they took to avoid it (Seligman, 2006). Be it to struggle, jump, bark or simply do nothing at all (Seligman, 2006).

This original learned helplessness model proposed that after experiencing uncontrollable aversive events (the shock), the animals became helpless remaining passive and unresponsive as they has learnt that there was no contingency between their actions and the outcome (Maier & Seligman, 1976).

A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. However, pessimism is escapable.” (Seligman, 2006, p.5)

Seligman’s experiments edit

Maier and Seligman (1976)]replicated the original learned helplessness experiments, however they further developed the methodology. The ‘triadic experiment’ involved three groups of dogs each yoked together. Seligman (2006)records the details of the experiments. The first group of dogs were given an escapable, whereby if they pushed a panel in the box, the shock would turn off. Thus, this dog was in control of the aversive stimulus as their behaviour affected the outcome of receiving the shock. The dogs in the second group were yoked to the first group of dogs. They too would receive the same shocks as the first group, however no response they made would have an effect on the continuing shocks. The shocks for the second group would only cease when the dog in the first group pushed the panel. The third group of dogs received no shocks. After several trials, the dogs were moved to the shuttle-box where they would be able to jump the barrier to escape the shock. The dogs that learnt to control the shocks in the first group, within seconds learnt to jump the barrier to escape the shock. The same response was found in those dogs in the third group that were not previously exposed to shocks. Interestingly, the dog in the second group that had previously learnt that it could not escape the shocks no matter what it did, did not attempt to escape the shocks in the shuttle box. Despite being regularly shocked by the box, the dog just laid down and gave up, never finding out that the by merely jumping the barrier would escape the shocks. Indeed, six out of the eight dogs in the helpless condition made no attempt to escape remaining passive, while none of the dogs in the first group gave up. The helpless animals learnt that their actions were futile and no longer initiated action (Seligman, 2006).

Explaining unexpected observations edit

The work of Hiroto (1974) was the culmination of learned helplessness experiments in humans. He took one group of people into a room and subjected them to a loud noise (Hiroto, 1974;Seligman, 2006). In front of the participant was a large panel of various buttons (Hiroto, 1974;Seligman, 2006). Participants were tasked with trying to turn off the noise (Hiroto, 1974;Seligman, 2006). Despite pushing any number of button combinations on the panel, the noise was unstoppable(Hiroto, 1974;Seligman, 2006). A second group of people were subjected to the same conditions, however, the right combination of buttons on the panel would make the noise stop(Hiroto, 1974;Seligman, 2006). After these trials, participants were taken to a room and made to put their hand in the shuttle-box inciting an annoying whooshing sound. However, if the person moved their hand to the other side of the box, the noise would stop(Hiroto, 1974;Seligman, 2006). Those in the inescapable condition previously were found to just sit there with their hand in the shuttle-box, not attempting to turn off the noise(Hiroto, 1974;Seligman, 2006).

Hiroto found that one out of every three people in his experiments never succumb to being helpless (Hiroto, 1974). Indeed, one out of three animals in Maier and Seligman's experiments did not become helpless (Maier & Seligman, 1976). Further, one in ten people in Hiroto's experiment just sat passively with their hand in the shuttle-box, doing nothing to alleviate the noise (Hiroto, 1974). Similarly, one in ten animals in Maier and Seligman's experiments were helpless from the start (Maier & Seligman, 1976; Seligman, 2006).

So who gives up easily and who never gives up? Why?

Explanatory style edit

In order to explain why some individuals tend to give up under adversity while other are seen to persist and overcome, it is prudent to introduce Seligman's concept of “’explanatory style”’ (Schulman, 1999). Explanatory style is the habitual explanations that a person gives themselves in the face of setbacks and failures (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). When an individual encounters a bad event, they inevitably ask “why?”. The causal attribution that the person makes at this point determined how they will respond to the event (Peterson, 2000). Essentially, your explanatory style is that little voice in your head that explains your circumstances to you in either a positive or negative way. A pessimist is said to explain a bad event in terms of external, unstable and specific cause, while those who favour internal, stable and global causes are considered pessimists (Peterson, 2000).

There are three crucial dimensions of a persons’ explanatory style; permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation.

Permanence edit

Believing that causes of bad events are temporary allow people to resist helplessness (Seligman, 2006). When a person gives up easily, there is a consideration that the causes of the bad event are permanent. When thinking about a bad event in terms of ‘always’ or ‘never’, or attributing a setback to you traits or abilities, you are employing a permanent, pessimistic style (Seligman, 2006). Where causal attributions are expressed as ‘sometimes’ or ‘lately’, and when bad events are blamed on a transient condition, an optimistic style is being utilized (Seligman, 2006).

Those who believe that good events have permanent causes are considered more optimistic than those attributing a temporary cause (Seligman, 2006). This is the opposite to when faced with a bad event. Seligman (2006) reports that attributing permanent causes to a good event is associated with a person trying harder after they succeed. Believing success was based on luck or a fluke, attribution of a temporary cause results in a person giving up even when they succeed (Seligman, 2006).


According to Seligman (2006), everyone experiences at least momentary helplessness when faced with failure. He compares the experience to being punched in the stomach in so far as it hurts at the time but this pain recedes eventually, for some it may even be instantly. Expressed as a PmB score of 0-1. However, others may experience an enduring hurt that lasts. Such that it “seethes, roils and congeals”, ultimately culminating into a grudge or helplessness. Following a small setback, these people may remain helpless for days to even months. Following a major defeat, this helplessness may be enduring for longer (Seligman, 2006).

Pervasiveness edit

When failure strikes in one area, a pessimist will make universal explanations about a setback or failure, the result being they give up on everything (Seligman, 2006). “When one thread of their lives snaps, the whole fabric unravels” (Seligman, 2006, p. 46). In contrast, a person who makes specific explanations for the bad event will become helpless only in that one area of their life while continuing to move on in all others (Seligman, 2006). Essentially, this person compartmentalizes their helplessness.


According to Seligman (2006), for an optimist a bad event has specific causes while a good event enhances everything they engage in. Conversely, a pessimist believes universal causes are attributable to bad events, with good events being caused by a specific factor (Seligman, 2006).

Personalization edit

When faced with a bad event such as a failure or setback, we can either externalize the blame to other people or circumstances, or we can internalize by blaming ourselves (Seligman, 2006). If a person blames themselves for a failure, the consequence is a lower sense of self-esteem (Seligman, 2006). This can be operationalized as feelings of being worthless, unlovable or talentless (Seligman, 2006). Where a person blames external events for their failure or setback, this loss of self-esteem doesn't occur (Seligman, 2006).


According to Seligman (2006), an optimist internalizes the blame for the good event and externalize the blame for a bad event. The opposite effect occurs for a pessimist.

Summary edit

How long a person gives up for is expressed by the permanence dimension (Seligman, 2006). Where permanent explanations are utilized for bad events, the result is long-lasting helplessness occurs, while a temporary explanation produces resilience (Seligman, 2006). Pervasiveness determines how many situations the helplessness spreads across from the original area of failure. A universal explanation is found to produce helplessness across all aspects of their life, while a specific explanation sees helplessness occur only in the one troubled area of their life (Seligman, 2006). Personalization is based on how you feel about yourself after a bad event and where the blame is placed (Seligman, 2006).

How do we measure explanatory style?

A self-report questionaire called the Atrributtional Style Questionaire (ASQ) is how explanatory style are typically measured (Peterson, 2000). This questionaire presents respondents with hypothetical situations and ask them to identify the major cause of the event as they would respond if it were to happen to them (Peterson et al., 1982). The provided causes are then rated by respondents along dimensions of internality, stability and globaility (Peterson, 2000). These ratings are combined, keeping good and bad event ratings separate. The Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE), is a second way of measuring explanatory style. Written or spoken material are able to be scored based on the causal explanations provided in a natural way (Peterson, Schulman, Catellon, & Seligman, 1992). Explantions for bad events are identified and extracted to be presented to qualified persons to rate them using the scales of the ASQ. An important strength of this measure is that the data can be used in longitudinal studies on individuals from whom long-term outcomes of interest are known (Peterson, 2000).


Dealing with Pessimism edit

Now that you are aware of your pessimistic beliefs, there are two general ways of dealing with them. These are distraction and disputation (Seligman, 2006). While you may choose to simply distract yourself by trying to think of something else, disputing the beliefs have been found to be more effective in the long run (Seligman, 2006).

Distraction edit

Seligman (2006) posits several simple, yet effective thought-stopping techniques that you can employ interrupt your habitual thought patterns.

  • Ring a loud bell
  • Carry a large card (approximately 3x5) with the word ‘STOP’ in big red letters. Hold the card out in front of you and focus on it, repeating it over in your mind.
  • Wear a rubber band around one wrist. When you begin to think a pessimistic belief, snap the rubber band. This is considered to stop your ruminating.

These techniques can be employed in conjunction with another technique known as attention shifting (Seligman, 2006). This has been found to have more long-lasting results (Seligman, 2006).After you have interrupted you though pattern by one of these physical techniques, direct your attention elsewhere (Seligman, 2006). Seligman (2006) provides the following example; “Pick up a small object and study it intently for a few seconds. Handle it, put it in your mouth and taste it, smell it, tap it to see how it sounds.” (p. 218) Another technique is to schedule time later to think over what you are experiencing in the face of adversity. When a bad event occurs and the thoughts associated with this are hard to stop, say to yourself, “Stop. I will come back to this thought later at ….am/pm” (Seligman, 2006). At the same time, write down the thoughts you are having associated with the adversity. This serves to ventilate the beliefs and essentially dispose of them until later.

Disputation- Go on the attack! edit

It isn't as easy to distance ourselves from accusation we pose towards ourselves as opposed to unfounded ones of others (Seligman, 2006). Rather than avoiding the beliefs we have in the face of adversity, a more lasting technique is to dispute them (Seligman, 2006). According to Seligman (2006), there are four different ways of implementing this strategy.

  1. Evidence: This strategy involves showing to ourselves that the negative belief is factually incorrect (Seligman, 2006). Ask yourself “What is the evidence for this belief?”. Search for the evidence that will reveal the distorting value of the explanation (Seligman, 2006).
  2. Alternatives: In most cases, there will be more than one cause for the events (Seligman, 2006). Pessimists look seek out the most permanent, pervasive and personal one that means the worst (Seligman, 2006). In order to dispute the negative beliefs, look for other contributing causes, even if you are not fully convinced they are true (Seligman, 2006). In particular, focus on the more changeable, specific and nonpersonal causes (Seligman, 2006).
  3. Implications: There may be occasions where you find that your negative belief is founded and true (Seligman, 2006). At this point, the technique of decatastrophizing should be utilized (Seligman, 2006). Ask yourself;
  • “What are the implications?”
  • ”Are these implications awful?”

Once you have answered these questions to yourself, repeat your search for evidence (Seligman, 2006).

  1. Usefulness: The truth of the belief may not matter as much as the consequences for holding a belief (Seligman, 2006). Where you determine the belief isn't useful to you, you may find that distraction is the better option (Seligman, 2006). Also, you may want to detail some ways in which you could change the situation in the future.

HOMEWORK Now that you know your ABC and the techniques you can employ to dispute or distract from your negative beliefs, it is time to practice the ABCDE model (Seligman, 2006). For the next five adverse events you face, pay close attention to your beliefs, observe the consequences and employ the disputation techniques mentioned previously(Seligman, 2006). As you successfully deal with your pessimistic beliefs, record the energization that you experience.

Blind optimism in relation to risk is viewed generally as an aspect of self-enhancement bias that encompasses the phenomena of planning fallacy (see Buehler & Griffin, 2003; Buehler, Griffin & Ross, 1997), the illusion of control ( See Langer, 1975; Langer & Roth, 1975), the better than average effect, or the tendency to overestimate their own skill relative to others (See Svenson, 1981), and overconfidence in judgement (See Kahneman & Tversky, 1973).

Studies of the criminal personality identify an unwillingness to take responsibility for self-initiated behaviours and a tendency to blame others or circumstance for the negative outcomes associated with their transgressions (Scheiner, 2001;Samenow, 1989).

“For example, following 9/11 in American, people pessimistically predicted further attacks. However they constructively dealt with these concerns by stocking up on bottled water, flashlights, batteries and non-perishable food items such as canned goods.” (Paul, 2011)

Applications of the learned optimism approach edit

Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., talks with Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. Thirty-two Army Soldiers and civilians attended a five-day Master Resilience Training course at the university as part of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness
  • For details of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program that operates on the founding principals of resiliene and optimism see ( Also refer to Cornum, R., Matthews, M. D., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Comprehensive soldier fitness: Building resilience in a challengin institutional context. American Psychologist, 66, 4–9. A free PDF version is available at
  • Also refer to the Metlife Case Study. A detailed but short summary is available at The academic write up and findings associated with this program can also be found in Seligman, M. E. P., & Schulman, P. (1986). Explanatory style as a predictor of productivity and quitting among life insurance sales agents. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 832–838.

Conclusion edit

See also edit

References edit

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