If you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology class, one thing that you’re bound to encounter is ‘the cup’. Now, this cup is unique in the fact that scholars and non scholars alike seem to wage a fierce debate over the contents of said cup. One side says that this proverbial cup is half empty, and the opposition adamantly argues that the cup is, in fact, half full. The exercise of viewing the glass within these parameters is said to tell you something about your personality. If you see the cup as half empty, you’re generally considered a pessimist. Viewing the glass as half full, then, makes you an optimist. For many years it was thought that a person’s perception of events as optimistic or pessimistic was hardwired, meaning people had to deal with what they had because there was no way to change it. However, contemporary science says otherwise. Research and literature published by Martin Seligman, Ph.D, contradict the current belief. Before we take a look at how that works, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page!
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What is Pessimism?
Although many people have a different definition of what pessimism is, pessimism shall be defined as the perceived meaning of events as inherently negative and discouraging. This includes persistent blaming of oneself, viewing failure as unrealistically long lasting, and low sense of confidence. These types of perception are usually brought about, or worsened, by negative self talk.
What is Optimism?
Optimism is the exact opposite of pessimism (who would have thought.) Optimists approach problems from a position of empowerment. Some see overcoming adversity as a challenge, one that they will gladly attempt to conquer. Unfortunately, will is not always enough to solve problems. When optimistic people are confronted by failure, they view it as temporary and attribute the failure to the situation or as a matter of circumstance. Now that we’re using the same terms, there is something else that we should consider before looking at learned optimism.
Why are we the way we are?
To understand how it works, it’s important to understand why people turn out the way they do. Cognitive psychology, a branch of psychology that deals with people’s thoughts and perceptions, also known as cognitions, holds explanations to why we have the orientation we do. One such theory suggests that one way people learn is via social learning. That is, people emulate and duplicate behaviors that they observe in their environment. While this might not seem important to people who have developed identities, people who do not have a strong character, like children, are highly impressionable to social learning. If their parents do not cope with stress in an optimistic manner, the children are likely to copy the pessimistic attitudes and behaviors. If such habits persist into the long term, people are at an increased risk for learning the opposite of learned optimism, learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is detrimental to optimistic thought patterns, as it perpetuates an attitude of apathy. Helpless people believe that whatever is going on in their life is out of their control, so it doesn’t matter what they do. Fortunately, this works in the opposite direction, too. If parents show their children positive, or optimistic, ways to cope with their stressors, then those children are more likely to combat helpless behaviors. The more positive regard you show your child, then more they’re going to replicate it. Now it’s time for the big reveal. The following section will cover how learned optimism is used to change people’s perspective.
Seligman contends that anyone can make use of learned optimism, regardless of how pessimistic a person’s outlook. Not all pessimists are the same. So, as a first step a person’s base level of optimism must be determined. As a means to get some hard data, Seligman developed a test (which you can take here, if you’re curious about how optimistic you are.) If your base level of optimism isn’t very high, don’t worry. In fact, it means that you are at the level where learned optimism can be the most beneficial, but more on that later. The next step is to assess people’s reaction to negative situations. To do this, Seligman created a system based off Albert Ellis’ ABCs. His system, ABCDE, adds two more steps. The first three letters stay the same: Adversity, Belief, Consequence. The additional two in the new system stand for D-Disputation and E-Energy. If this is a little confusing, this should help.
- Adversity– This is the event that causes stress.
- Belief– This is how a person interprets the event
- Consequence– The resulting action from the belief caused by the adversity.
- Disputation– Using evidence to challenge negative thoughts from A-C.
- Energizing– Once a person is able to condition themselves into positive thoughts and behaviors in response to A, B-D will eventually lead to a person feeling more energized.
To start to affect change, one must first understand their own beliefs and reactions to adversity. An efficient way to do this is to use a journal to document natural reactions to adversity. After a couple of days, the journal should be revisited and examined. Patterns of pessimism should be taken into note. After all entries are examined, brainstorming on how to replace negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones should begin. If this seems familiar, this is because it is the D phase in Seligman’s model. After repeated use of this practice, a person’s behavior’s should start to become more optimistic. And just like that, you have learned optimism. Although it might sound easy on paper, that doesn’t mean you’re going to learn how to be an optimist overnight. If you do not succeed the first time, then try again! Every attempt puts you closer to living a happier life. If you’re still finding yourself having trouble, then consider the use of a mental health professional.
Is it really worth it?
YES! There is hard evidence that becoming an optimist is good for you. One such benefit is that it can increase physical health. Most stress is dangerous to the body. Increased levels of stress have been linked to high levels of inflammation, weaker immune systems, increase in headaches, and a whole bunch of other somatic symptoms. Now, optimists aren’t magically exempt from stress; however, they do seem to manage stress more efficiently than others. Rather, they have a way of dealing with stress so that the stress disappears at a faster rate than pessimists and normal people. Your mental health could benefit from this, too. In a study that was done at the University of Pennsylvania, students who practiced learned optimism techniques reported less cases of moderate to severe depression than the control group. Another mental health problem, anxiety, was also monitored. Learned optimism students showed decreased levels of anxiety issues as well! The increase of mental wellness, or therein lack of depression and anxiety, led to students who practiced learned optimism techniques saw correlating physical benefits as well.. Learned optimism was noted to have another effect, too. People who practiced their optimism skills are reported to be more successful in the world of business. Again, the reason is not because optimists have some magical power. Recall the ABCDE model. Once you’re in the full optimistic attitude, a benefit is improved energy, and with more energy, there is usually an increase in productivity. The more productive you are at work, on average, the more successful you will be. So there you have it. What was once thought to be impossible to change has evidence to suggest otherwise. If you’re interested in continuing to learn about the issue, then perhaps you might check out Martin Seligman’s book on the subject, or read the research for yourself, so you can come to your own conclusion. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing the glass half empty. Sometimes it could be helpful. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a look at the benefits of being an optimist!
If this topic interests you, then this could be the perfect time for you to check out Martin Seligman’s book, ‘Learned Optimism’. The book gives a scientific, yet engaging, explanation of the benefits of learned optimism. Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and other book outlets.