Martin Seligman is one of the most famous living psychologists because of his work in pioneering a new division of psychology, Positive Psychology. Rather than focusing on “the planes that crash,” Positive Psychology takes a new spin on psychology by focusing on the “planes that stay in the air.” By studying the mentally healthy and happy, psychologists learn what is necessary for optimal functioning.
Martin has spent decades studying pessimism and optimism. Here’s what I learned from his book, Learned Optimism, in ten minutes or less:
A One-Paragraph Summary
In many situations, optimism is a better behavioral approach that can lead to a happier, healthier, and more successful life. Anyone can learn how to be optimistic. Your pessimism is changeable. Use the ABCD method to identify adversity and the associated beliefs and consequences, so you can dispute those beliefs.
Optimism vs. Pessimism
- Optimists don’t blame themselves for their defeat, they point to circumstance. They think consequences are temporary.
- Pessimists believe that bad events last for a long time and will ruin all they’ve worked for
Benefits and costs:
Pessimism can lead to a defeatist attitude, leading to stress, anxiety, giving up sooner, thinking things will never change, ruminating about possible negative future events incessantly for longer than necessary, and blaming oneself for other people’s exploitative actions. Pessimists are more likely to sink into depression.
One story in the book addresses a real case study of a woman who got stripped of her academic credentials for not correctly citing 2 sources. She was charged by her mentor with plagiarism, the greatest crime in academics. But it was an attack against her to avoid losing her as a student since she got those sources from her mentor who acted as if they were his thoughts. Unfortunately, rather than realizing that this was not her fault or getting angry, she took all the blame, thought her life was over, disregarded the fact that her mentor set her up, believed she was a cheat and doomed, and gave up. She got banned and worked in sales for ten years, never reading literature again.
Hundreds of studies show that optimists do a lot better in school and work, age better, are in better health, are more likely to get elected in politics, while pessimists give up easier. Optimists’ success is due to their ability to persevere more especially when their competition wants to quit.
Anyone can benefit having an optimistic attitude because it can help you navigate uncertain situations that cause anxiety. Scared your child will get bullied? Scared you will get into a car accident? Scared you can’t please your spouse? Optimism reduces unnecessary or ridiculous negative projections and rumination.
Optimists succeed because they persevere longer. They keep going when times look grim, especially when their competition wants to quit.
A Great Scientific Discovery
One of the greatest discoveries of psychology in the 20 years is that you can change how you think. You can change your habits of thinking. The old accepted theory that humans are 100% products of their environment has been debunked. Optimism can be learned.
Test Your Optimism Now
If your score is less than 8, you need to change. If it’s above 8, ask if you get depressed, discouraged, or fail more often than you want to. If so, you want to improve.
Here’s the grading break down.
There’s a time dimension:
If you want to be more optimistic, the most important variable is permanence.
PmV – Permanence Bad – how likely someone is to think that something bad that happens to them is permanent and will affect the rest of their lives.
PmG – Permanance Good – the opposite — how likely someone thinks something isn’t permanent.
There’s a space dimension:
Pervasiveness Bad – how likely someone is to give up on other areas of life if a failure strikes in on area (e.g., you get fired, so you stop doing stuff in your personal or family life).
Pervasiveness Good – knowing how success in one area will impact success in others.
And the final dimensions:
Stuff of Hope / Hopelessness – Seeing misfortune as permanent or temporary.
Personalization – How you blame others, circumstance, or yourself
When To Be Optimistic
The aim of this program and book is to increase your control of how you think of experiences, not to become a complete optimist because there are times when pessimism is better. Avoid removing all personal responsibility through your outlook. It’s more about learning how to stop letting negative events from crippling you. To determine when it’s appropriate to be optimistic, ask yourself:
What are you trying to accomplish? What’s the cost of failure?
Use optimism in these situations:
- If the cost of failure is low (conducting one more sales call, taking up a new hobby, considering new skills in free time)
- If you are trying to achieve something (win a promotion, sell something, etc.), use optimism
- If you’re concerned about how you feel (keep morale), use optimism
- If you’re looking at something that will take a long time or trying to inspire and influence other people
Use pessimism in these situations:
- To plan for the future to build in contingencies
- To council to people who have a bad future
- Be sympathetic to people who are grieving or going through bad times, start with pessimism
- If cost of failure is large — the pilot who is de-icing the plane the fourth time, the wife considering an affair, a woman on her sixth alcoholic drink and considering driving home herself.
How To Start Changing
Turn rejection into good cheer by arguing with your beliefs to suspend disbelief. Your beliefs may or may not be true. You are your worst critic. You can more easily distance criticism from others than your accusations towards yourself. Journal the ABCD’s to check yourself before you wreck yourself.
- A – adversity – Write down what happened during your negative experience. Don’t evaluate or infer. Just record what happened. Don’t write down your opinions of the actions or guesses at what others were thinking.
- B – beliefs – What are your beliefs that made you feel bad? What are the direct causes of how you felt? Add evaluations. Sometimes, your beliefs will be accurate. If so, concentrate on how you can alter the situation to prevent your situation from becoming a disaster. Usually, your negative beliefs are distortions.
- C – consequences – What do these beliefs result in? Add your feelings?
- D – dispute – Attack your beliefs. Dispute your automatic pessimistic reaction (this is a long-lasting fix).
- E – Feel the energy changes from disputation (optional)
- See the connection between each of the letters in your ABCDE’s.
Keep a diary for your ABCD’s until you record five adverse situations and how you react. You’ll notice how pessimistic beliefs result in passivity, while optimistic beliefs result in constructive action.
- Disputing the fact you didn’t get straight A’s in a class you’re taking at 40 with 20 year olds: I didn’t do the best, but I didn’t do the worst. I got two B’s, but the guy next to me got C’s and D’s. Also, the fact I’m taking this class doesn’t make me any less intelligent than any of my classmates because I have a full-time job with two kids. Given the preparation time I had, I did pretty well.
- Thinking you’re doomed and should give up because you slipped up and ate one piece of junk food while on a diet, so you might as well stuff your face and ruin the whole week’s worth of dieting.
- Tell yourself how you didn’t screw up, how strong you are for sticking for it so long, and that doesn’t mean you should give up for a minor mistake.
When you hit a “wall” at work, such as getting many rejections during sales calls, tune into how your beliefs make you feel and make you do next. There are three variations of this:
- After each wall / rejection from strangers, write down the adversity, how you felt, and what you did.
- When you don’t face a rejection in your career, identify a wall you face at work, carry out the ABC’s when it happens. For example, you can use ABC’s to deal with the apathy of students you teach them or the bad treatment you get from people above and below you in an organization.
- Sometimes, your walls are periodic and unpredictable. Set some time after work to conjure up the situation and/or play out the dialogue on paper. Write out the adversities, beliefs, and consequences five times but each time, add a twist to the adversity. You’ll notice pessimistic explanations set off passivity, while optimistic explanations set off activity.
The D, disputation, is important. There are four ways to make disputations convincing.
- Evidence – pessimism is usely an over-reaction, so evidence is usually on your side when you check the evidence. (e.g., when you count up the calories of the cheat meal, it’s only slightly more than the breakfast you skipped).
- Alternative explanations for your actions – most events have more than one cause. Don’t just latch onto the most everlasting, negative cause (e.g., you didn’t do as well as you wanted on the test not because you’re old and worse, but because you didn’t have as much time, you didn’t get enough sleep, you didn’t work as hard, etc.).
- Examine Implications of your beliefs.
- Examine the Usefulness of these beliefs – In some moments, it’s better to question whether or not it’s useful to dwell on a belief right now rather than whether it’s true, such as when you’re diffusing a bomb and slight errors may cost you your life. In cases like this, it’s better to use distraction tactics…
How to Stop Dwelling on Negativity
How can you stop thinking about a pink elephant or an ice cream melting on a freshly baked pie? The thought makes you think about it more. Use these tips during the Adversity stage when you have just experienced a negative event.
Redeploy your focus. Use a physical switch, like an abrupt, big clap or yell. Jump up, slam your hand against the wall and shout, “Stop!” Or have flashcards with the word STOP or a rubberband wristband you slap on your wrist to remind you. Pick up an object, like a pencil, concentrate on the small details of it, the eraser, the color, and so on.
Schedule set time later to think about them. Rumination and dwelling circles in your mind. Instead, schedule set time later to think about it, such as 7pm at night for 30 minutes.
Write your thoughts down in a journal because it helps ventilate them and will eliminate any reasons to continue ruminating.
You have a choice to use optimism to change your attitude. You can also choose not to use it when it’s more practical to be pessimistic (this is called flexible optimism). Change your habitual beliefs to adversity, and your reaction will change.
You’ll feel much happier and your life will be better. You can improve by practicing with a coworker. Have a coworker you trust sit down with you and argue a pessimistic belief you have. Then, dispute with every argument you can think of.
Optimism isn’t a miracle cure. Optimism alone won’t fix depression, failure, or bad health.
Martin paints the picture of pessimism as taking responsibility for disasters when it wasn’t your fault. The big example was the studious woman who was framed by her professor and decides to blame herself and think her life is over.
The book is concise and short, which I like since it doesn’t repeat or go on for too long.
Martin says throughout the book that blaming yourself is a bad thing, and it’s better to acknowledge external circumstances for failed events if you want to be more optimistic. I had a hard time accepting this principle because it runs counter to standard personal development advice.
Many successful people say that unsuccessful people blame everything but themselves for their situation. In reality, there is so much they can do to improve their situation and so much opportunity but they take the easy way out by turning a blind eye to what they’re doing wrong, like spending 6 hours after work watching TV while other people are working, because it’s more comfortable.
To reconcile this dissonance, I believe both principles are correct but just addressing different situations and people. Martin is possibly addressing perfectionist and overachievers with his book — people who do a lot of work but beat themselves up to the point of giving up or getting depressed when circumstances they can’t control cause them to fail. The examples used in the book are often of people who have been doing an incredible job, sometimes working extra on top of their full-time job, but have been tempted to give up completely on their goal because of a small bump in the road — like getting a single B in a class when someone was aiming for all A’s or eating junk food for one meal when she has been doing great on her diet all week.
The book’s advice is not for people who blame everything but themselves for their lack of success and don’t put in the work necessary since they’re rather stay in their comfortable zone.
Further Reading and Resources
- Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman
- Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
- What You Can Change and What You Can’t by Martin Seligman
- Richard Branson’s article on why optimism beats pessimism.
- Elon Musk’s interview on not giving up
- Steve Job’s interview on passion and not giving up
Never, ever, ever give up.
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