Learned Optimism

Learned Optimism

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, psychologist, professor, author, and former head of the American Psychological Association, people’s sense of wellbeing is derived from three sources:

  1. About half of our personality seems to be inherited.
  2. Much of how we feel about life comes from where we live. Democracies allow more optimism than living under the rule of a despot, for instance.
  3. The last part of our sense of wellbeing comes from how we filter and describe events that happen to us, good and bad. This is the part of sense of wellbeing that we have control over.

On his website (http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx), Dr. Seligman offers free questionnaires to do self-analysis. How do you explain good events? How do you explain bad events? What is measured in the questionnaires is called your explanatory style.

Explanatory styles are understood in terms of three factors:

  1. When something good or bad happens, do we take it personally? (Do we personalize it?)
  2. Do we think the good thing or bad thing occurs as a result of something bigger? (Is it pervasive?)
  3. Do we think it’s temporary, or that it might last forever? (Is it permanent?)

Here’s an example: You get a compliment. Do you brush it off? Do you think it’s accurate? Do you personalize the flattery? If someone likes your T-shirt, you might think, “Yeah, it is cool, isn’t it? I’m pretty good at picking T-shirts. Always have been.”  Or you might think, “Is he kidding? This old rag? I just don’t dress very well. Never have. “  Guess which explanatory style leads you to feeling content and optimistic.

Here’s another example: Your roof has a leak. You think, “It’s not my fault, of course. I paid the roofers to fix it and they didn’t. I’m very good at home maintenance. Always have been.” Or do you see it as catastrophic, “Oh, why can’t I choose good roofers? What’s wrong with me? This house needs tons of little repairs. It will never be in great shape.”

If you personalize good events, you will have a greater sense of wellbeing. Additionally, if you see unfortunate events as “not your fault”, temporary, and local, you have a much better chance to be optimistic and to find ways to fix them.

Dr. Seligman is well-known and admired for the quality of his scientific research. His study outcomes have been repeated for decades. He knows how to teach people to think optimistically. Although there are limits to “when” to be optimistic (we prefer airline pilots to use pessimism during flights, we don’t want to encourage narcissism), in general we can improve our sense of wellbeing by learning how to positively interpret life’s every changing landscape.