The father of learned optimism and one of the most influential figures in positive psychology, Martin Seligman defines optimism as "a tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.”
Seligman began his early research studying 'learned helplessness', the sense some people have that reoccuring negative experiences are outside their control. Seligman went on to examine what keeps people optimistic and how they can learn to adopt a positive outlook that will boost their resilience and wellbeing.
Optimism is a tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.
Pathways and agency
If we are optimistic we tend to see more solutions. We tend to be more successful as we believe they will work. We stay motivated.
Blind optimism or rose-coloured glasses is not what we mean. Flexible, realistic optimism is about seeing the rocks in the road as well as a path through them. Optimism is closely linked with hope theory, which comprises three cognitive components: goals, agency thinking (ie, the motivational component of “I can do this”), and pathways thinking (ie, "I am capable of finding a route to achieve this goal"). More hopeful people who have a goal will be able to see various pathways to achieving their goal (“I will find a way”) as well as being able to keep motivated.
Blind optimism or rose-coloured glasses is not what we mean. Flexible, realistic optimism is about seeing the rocks in the road as well as a path through them.
Learned optimism is not about whether you are born an ‘optimist’ or a ‘pessimist’. It is about the way we learn to explain our experience to ourselves. It is also influenced by the way we feel and can change day to day. Think about optimism and pessimism as two ends of a dimension. How we feel may impact where we are sitting on that dimension at any one point in time. If today you are feeling down and worried, you may have a more pessimistic explanatory style. If tomorrow you are feeling positive and upbeat, you may view the same situation with a more optimistic explanatory style.
Seligman explains that we see the world through three lenses: permanence, pervasiveness and personalisation. People with an optimistic explanatory style tend to explain failure as the outcome of an unlucky situation (not personal) and a temporary setback (not permanent) in reaching one of many goals (not pervasive).
The ABCDE Model is a useful framework for building optimism by identifying and disputing pessimistic thoughts and negative self-talk. Designed by Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, Seligman detailed this approach in his book Authentic Happiness.
A. The Activating event or potentially stressful situation.
B. your Beliefs, thoughts, perceptions about A.
C. the Consequence that results - ie, the behaviour your exhibit or action you take.
D. take time to Dispute your beliefs or thoughts, are they ‘true, false, or don’t know’.
E. then Energise your new thoughts and beliefs into action.
Optimism in action
Here are some positive actions and habits you can learn to boost your optimism and think about your reactions to adverse events in new ways.
- Challenge your negative self-talk and thinking.
- Create positive beliefs to explain your experience to replace negative ones.
- Think of all the positive things in your life.
- Remind yourself that bad things will pass.
- Recall and savour your successes and achievements, even small ones.
- Visualise things going well and use imagery to picture positive outcomes.
If you would like to know more about your current explanatory style, take the Optimism Test at University of Pennsylvania's Authentic Happiness website.
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