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‘Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life’ by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

by Nick Hill (reviewer), June 2020

Learned Optimism is the foundation of my thinking about Positive Psychology, and it is the first of the triptych that leads there. In 1996, I published The Optimistic Child, which applies the knowledge and the skills you will read about in this volume to teenagers and school children. In 2002, I published the third book of the series: Authentic Happiness. This book sets forward a larger theory about the positive side of life: “happiness” is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three different forms of it you can pursue. For the “Pleasant Life”, you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion. For the “Engaged Life”, you identify your highest strengths and talents and recraft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure. For the “Meaningful Life”, you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.

Learned Optimism can set you on the path to any or all three forms of happiness. The skills you will read about here can increase the duration and intensity of your positive emotions. These skills can enable you to use your highest strengths and talents more effectively. Finally, optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.”

[Martin E. P. Seligman]

This was a fascinating read that delves into the world of optimism and how it can be developed and learnt. It will help you discover your own pessimistic tendencies, if you have them, or those of people you care for. It will also introduce you to the techniques that have helped thousands of people undo lifelong habits of pessimism and its extension, depression. It will give you the choice of looking at your setbacks in a new light. Interestingly he shares the traditional view of achievement that success results from a combination of talent and desire. 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. The key is changing the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks that life deals all of us is the central skill of optimism, i.e. what you think when you fail, using the power of “non-negative thinking”. An important point to make from the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty five years is that individuals can choose the way they think.

“The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristics of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that it causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

These two habits of thinking about causes have consequences. Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and college, at work and on the playing field. They regularly exceed the predictions of aptitude test. When optimists run for office, they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually good. They age well, much freer than most of us from the usual physical ills of middle age. Evidence suggests they may even live longer.” p.4 and 5

[Martin E. P. Seligman]

Martin shares how you can apply the principles in schools, teams and organisations. Rather than using traditional wisdom which holds that there are two ingredients of success (ability or aptitude (measured by e.g. IQ tests) and desire or motivation), and you need both to succeed. But taking this approach leads to a large number of mistakes in the future. No matter how much aptitude you have, says traditional wisdom, if you lack desire you will fail. Enough desire can make up for a meagre talent. He believes success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure and that an optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence. So in order to choose people for success, you need to select for three characteristics as all three determine success:-

  1. Aptitude;
  2. Motivation;
  3. Optimism.

The case study of Met Life and the change in strategy they went through in recruiting new sales agents was a resounding success in creating not only a larger sales force, but a better one.

One aspect that is very important to note for sports coaches and physical education teachers, from the extensive research that Martin and colleagues carried out, is that optimistic teams are more successful than pessimistic teams, e.g. when comparing the 1985 Mets and 1986 Cardinals MLB Baseball teams. Another aspect to highlight is that a change from pessimism to optimism should see more wins under pressure, and is at least partly responsible for the prevention of depressive symptoms, something that is rather poignant considering the impact that COVID and our lockdown will probably have had on many people during these unprecedented times. He also shares how optimism can affect the immune system and that more optimistic people live healthier and longer lives, with the key characteristic being the way in which people deal with bad events. The health of people at age sixty was strongly related to optimism at age twenty-five. Therefore these psychological tools that we can arm our students with during the developing years at school will go a long way towards helping them navigate the ever changing and challenging landscape of the real world.

He shares numerous examples of how you can change from being a pessimist to an optimist by taking you through each stage of the ABCDE model when you hear negative beliefs and/or what you say to yourself when you come to the wall:-

  1. When we encounter an adversity, we react by thinking about it;
  2. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may become so habitual we don’t even realize we have then unless we stop and focus on them;
  3. And they don’t sit there idly; they have consequences;
  4. A deep lasting remedy is the disputation of your beliefs that follow adversity;
  5. Energization then occurs as you succeed in dealing with the negative beliefs.

So if you haven’t come across Learned Optimism before, and haven’t used it in your mentoring, teaching, coaching and/or parenting, then using the Attribution Style Questionnaire (ASQ) will be a great starting point to see where you are, and your players/children/employees/teams are along the Pessimism-Optimum continuum... as your Explanatory Style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. It is a habit of thought, learned in childhood and adolescence, and stems directly from your view of your place in the world. The ASQ measures something you can’t. It predicts success beyond experienced coaches’ judgements, optimism tells you who to select and recruit as the optimist will do better in the long run, and you can train your pessimists to become optimists.

This book is applicable for anyone wishing to understanding how people think and to learn how to change the way your mind/their interprets things. It will be an invaluable resource for you as a leader, manager, teacher, coach and/or parent. I would say that it is a great compliment to go with Carol Dweck’s book Mindset and Angela Duckworth’s book Grit.