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If you’ve ever taken introductory psychology, one thing that you’re bound to encounter is “the glass.”
Now, this glass is unique in the fact that scholars and non-scholars seem to wage a fierce debate over the contents of said glass.
One side says that this proverbial glass is half empty, and the opposition adamantly argues that the glass is, in fact, half full.
As you may have guessed, how you view the glass reveals 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. Whether or not you agree with these classifications, the glass metaphor is powerful.
For many years, the field of psychology thought that a person’s perception of events—as optimistic or pessimistic—was hardwired. This would mean that people had to deal with themselves and helpless outlooks on life: there was no way to change personal belief systems.
Contemporary psychological says otherwise.
Research and literature published by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., contradicts the current belief that people must cope with “the cards dealt.” Seligman’s studies reveal that optimism is something we can learn, just like pessimism.
Before we take a look at how that works, let’s make sure everyone is on the same page with this vocabulary. Then, we will dig into the science behind how people can re-wire their brains for their personal benefit.
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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 a 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, and one that they will gladly attempt to conquer.
Unfortunately, the will is not always enough to solve problems. When optimistic people are confronted by failure, they view it as temporary and often attribute the failure to the situation or circumstance.
Why Are We the Way We Are?
It’s important to understand why people turn out the way they do. Cognitive psychology studies just that, meaning, people’s thoughts and perceptions. These thoughts, also known as cognitions, offer insight into why we act and perceive things the way that we do.
One theory suggests that people learn via social learning. That is, people emulate and duplicate behaviors that they observe in their environment. While this might not seem important to people with 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 in 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.
Parents and teachers impress young children deeply. For example, when parents show their children positive, or optimistic, ways to cope with stressors, those children are more likely to combat helpless behaviors; in other words, those children are more likely to believe in their ability to handle stress and push through it, at school, home, and social situations.
Additionally, the more positive regard you show your child, then more they’re going to replicate the thinking that resulted in receiving praise. This creates a feedback loop where optimistic thought patterns continue to wire the brain.
Now it’s time for the big reveal. The following section will cover how learned optimism can 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.
As a first step, a person’s base level of optimism must be determined. To gather 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. It just 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 on Albert Ellis’ ABCs. But Seligman’s 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 – The search for evidence to challenge negative thoughts from A-C.
- Energizing – The result when a person conditions themselves into positive thoughts and behaviors. In response to A (adversity), B-D can eventually lead to a person to feeling energized.
In summary of Seligman’s ABCDE template, it is important that people understand their own beliefs and reactions to adversity. One efficient way to do this is to use a journal and document natural reactions to adversity. After a couple of days, the journal should be revisited and examined.
What are the patterns re-appearing in your writing? Do you tend to externalize good events, or rather, not give yourself credit when something goes well in your life? Do you internalize hard events, and assume fault often?
Patterns of pessimism should be considered (without judgment) in your reflections. Examine your entries, then begin brainstorming how to replace negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones.
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 can shift towards optimism. And just like that, you are re-training your brain to think in neural circuits that are much more pleasant to experience.
It might sound easy on paper, but 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 changing your thoughts, you are not alone. Consider the use of mental health professionals, and if you find one you like, maybe explore these ideas with them.
Is It Really Worth It?
Yes. Scientific evidence shows that becoming an optimist is good for your mind and body.
One such benefit is that it can increase physical health. Most stress is dangerous to the body, and sometimes, the stress of “being stressed,” is a common experience. 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. Stress is not the enemy, but our thoughts of it are.
Now, optimists aren’t magically exempt from stress; however, they do seem to manage stress more efficiently than others. They have a way of dealing with stress so that it 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 fewer cases of moderate to severe depression than the control group.
Anxiety was also monitored in that study at the University of Pennsylvania. 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 that optimists have some magical power.
Recall the ABCDE model. Once you’re in the full optimistic attitude, a benefit is improved energy; 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.
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. His book is widely available for purchase.
The Health Benefits of Optimism
A recent UK study examined the effects of optimism on the predictability of injury and post-injury performance. In conclusion, higher levels of optimism decreased the likelihood of debilitating injury among athletes.
This could be a result of optimistic individuals being in active promotion of their health. They might balance rest and nutrition with exercise. Optimistic athletes are also found to lack a stress response during demanding physical situations.
Optimistic individuals returning to their sport while still recovering from injury are less likely to experience negative feelings such as dispiritedness, restlessness or isolation, which heighten the probability of repeat injuries.
Sometimes injuries are debilitating, so this study is not to undermine how even optimistic athletes struggle with recovery; however, ample evidence highlights that athletes who manage the stress of injuries and post-injury recovery, often carry high levels of optimistic thinking.
Imagine a “Future You” to Benefit the “Current You”
Optimists and pessimists are characterized by expectations that their outcomes in any given situation will be, respectively, positive or negative.
While research has shown that optimists experience better mental well-being than pessimists, it is important to consider that it is impossible to remain positive throughout every life hardship.
Research does show, however, that imagining the best possible self (BPS exercise) can increase optimism. Imagining the best possible self, or BPS, requires thinking and writing about a future self characterized by ideal circumstances and achievements.
Researchers at Obero University found that students who thought wrote and reflected about their best possible selves were more optimistic about their future than students who did the same about a typical day in their lives.
The authors speculate that this is because picturing the best possible self is linked to goals. Who are you, in the vision of your BPS?
Being Optimistic Can Help You to Live a Longer Life
Numerous studies also found that optimism is related to longevity, in addition to the physical and mental well-being benefits.
A US study of nearly 100,000 students found that people who are optimistic are less likely than those who are pessimistic to die from Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) or from any other cause over an 8-year period. Similar studies have also confirmed this link between optimism and good health.
The belief that good things will happen in life is called dispositional optimism and it has been strongly connected with improved recovery rates after surgery and improved cancer survival rates. This is similar to the athletes in the post-injury recovery mentioned earlier in this article.
It seems worth it to strive for optimism, considering the increased life span among other things. What do we have to lose when from an optimist’s perspective, there is so much to gain.
Whether you agree with the virtues of optimism or are struggling with one of the core ideas, we would love to hear your thoughts—optimistic or pessimistic—below.