Can I Learn Optimism?

Posted on August 30th, by Albert in Accept, Choice, Decision, Optimism, Problems, Thoughts. No Comments

“People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across situations.

Learned helplessness is the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness. An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness.”  – Martin Seligman from Learned Optimism

Seligman and his colleagues conducted an experiment using dogs.

Imagine two dogs: The first dog is slightly shocked but has a lever he can push that will stop the shocks. He quickly learns to stop the shocks. He’s in good “psychological” shape. A second dog does not have a lever. He can’t stop the shocks. Rather, the shocks stop whenever the first dog hits his lever. So, in effect, the shocks are random. Our second dog “learns” that he is helpless in the face of these shocks.

Here’s what’s fascinating: The dogs are then moved to a new area and taught a new way to avoid the shocks. So, now they can BOTH avoid the shocks at will. Remarkably, although the first dog avoids the shocks, the second dog curls up in the corner and whimpers as the shock—which he could have avoided—is administered. He’s learned helplessness.

So, how does this apply to humans? In short, we “learn” helplessness when we believe that nothing we do will change our circumstances and then, effectively, give up. This learned helplessness is one of the strongest correlates of depression. The solution? We need to change our explanatory styles.


We are constantly talking to ourselves. Let’s call that our internal dialogue. Imagine something bad happens—whether it’s losing your job, or getting in an argument with a friend or spouse. How do you tend to respond? What’s your internal dialogue? Some people, the ones who tend to give up easily, habitually say things like: “It’s my fault, it’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything I do.” Others, who are less likely to give in to the tough times, say: “The outcome was out of my control, it’s only temporary and, besides, it’s only one part of my life.”

We are always interpreting different events—both positive and negative. Seligman calls the way we interpret these events our explanatory style. He has identified three primary elements of our explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Your current tendencies dictate your level of optimism.

“There are three crucial dimensions to your explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.”

Permanence: Is it likely to continue? Is it permanent or temporary?
The permanence is pretty straightforward. Something happens. Do you explain the results as permanent, and likely to recur? Or, do you think it was temporary—just a fluke. If it’s a bad thing, the optimist tends to think it’s a fluke. If it’s a good thing, they tend to think it’s permanent. The opposite holds true for the pessimist: Good things are the flukes and bad things are more likely to recur.

Pervasiveness: Is it reflective of your whole life? Is it “universal” or is it “specific”?
The pervasiveness looks at whether we believe an event is specific or universal. So, do we think the results of this one event apply to everything in our lives, or just that episode? With a good event, the optimist is more likely to extend it to her whole life. With a bad event, she will tend to isolate the incident as specific to that situation. The opposite holds true for the pessimist. If something good happens, they think it was a fluke. If something bad happens, they think it is representative of their whole life.

Personalization: Internal or external?

The personalization looks at whether we believe that we are responsible for the event, or if something outside of our control was responsible. The fancy psychological term for it is “locus of control”: whether you believe the control was “internal” or “external.” Something good happens. An optimist pats himself on the back (internal)—saying he did a good job. Same thing happens to a pessimist. He is more likely to attribute the success to luck, other people’s hard work, or something else outside of his control (external). Something bad happens. The optimist looks to things outside of himself (external) to explain the event—from bad luck to an off day. The pessimist, although they didn’t take responsibility for the good event, are eager to take responsibility for the bad event (internal).

The good news is  “Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think.” – Martin Seligman

This blog post is adapted from Brian Johnson’s Philosopher’s Notes on Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

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