Learned optimism is the acquisition of a set of cognitive beliefs that allow situations to be interpreted in a positive manner. According to Martin Seligman, individuals interpret situations in terms of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. An event can remain stable across time (permanent) or change over time (temporary). The cause of the event may occur in a variety of situations (global), or it may be specific to the current event. Personalization refers to the focus of the blame. It can either be the individual’s fault (internal) or due to someone else or to circumstances (external). People who exhibit optimism are likely to interpret positive events (successes) as permanent, global, and internal whereas negative events (or failures) are likely to be interpreted as temporary, specific, and external. Pessimists, on the other hand, believe that the causes of negative events are permanent, global, and internal. The difference between optimists and pessimists lies within how a situation is interpreted.
Research suggests that individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style who experience negative events are more likely to become depressed than individuals with a more optimistic style. Research also suggests that optimists are more resilient, more successful at work and at school, and are in better physical health than pessimists. Thus, according to this theory, changing one’s outlook on life could significantly impact one’s life.
According to Seligman, individuals can learn how to interpret negative events in an optimistic explanatory style, thereby permanently improving the quality of their lives. With this approach, an individual can learn to be an optimist by learning a set of cognitive skills that should be implemented when a setback occurs and the cost of failure is low. Seligman suggests that individuals be taught how to see the connection between adversity (a situation), beliefs (how the situation is interpreted), and consequences (behavior). He states that if individuals can change their maladaptive beliefs, then their ability to cope and their behavior will change. The most effective way to change beliefs is through disputation. Here, an individual examines the support for his or her belief, the alternatives, the implications, and the usefulness of his or her beliefs. This examination allows an individual to change his or her normal pessimistic reaction to a reaction that motivates the individual to master the challenges of life. New experiences can then be interpreted through these cognitive skills.
Seligman believes that an optimistic explanatory style is important in everyday events. Research has shown that learned optimism reduces depression and can lead to increases in productivity, achievement, health, marital satisfaction, and political victories.
- Gillham, J. E. (Ed.). (2000). The science of optimism and hope: Research essays in honor of Martin E. P. Seligman. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Vintage Books.
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