Martin Seligman pioneered the understanding of what is called “learned helplessness. He found that animals and people could get so used to not being able to act to improve their situation that they simply give up. This was a very important contribution to our understanding of depression and passivity.
In his book, Learned Optimism, he demonstrates how to learn, not helplessness, but its antithesis: optimism. The benefits of learning optimism are substantial. The studies have shown that there can be a difference of eight years between the life span of an optimistic person and that of a pessimistic person.
The optimist, of course, lives longer.
When one learns to be more optimistic, one can also expect to be healthier in general, to suffer less from depression, and to be more effective in one’s life. Optimists are happier and more resilient.
When something good happens for an optimist, they tend to see it as personal (I made this happen), pervasive (I make lots of things like this happen), and permanent (I always will make these sorts of things happen).
When something good happens for a pessimist, they tend to see it as impersonal (this happened to me somehow), specific (it is unusual that this happened), and temporary (it’s not likely that this will happen again).
The reverse is true when it comes to bad things. The optimist will see a bad event as impersonal, specific, and temporary; while the pessimist will see a bad event as personal, pervasive, and permanent.
Fortunately for us, of all the strengths that can improve one’s level of happiness, optimism is one that we know can be significantly improved with practice.
How can you improve your optimism? Know your ABC’s, of course. (This exercise can be found in more detail in Seligman’s books Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness):
A) When you find yourself looking at an event from a pessimistic perspective, first identify the adversity – whatever the situation is that is causing you trouble: “My wife and I are having an argument,” for example.
B) Then identify the belief that brings you to be feeling badly ”We’re always arguing, she never understands me, I just can’t express myself ever in a way that seems to work.”
C) Then notice what the consequence of that belief is: “I feel awful, I feel hurt and angry, I feel afraid of the conflict, I have a sense of despair over how our relationship is going.”
D) The next step is disputation, challenging this belief that is bringing you to feel badly: “Wait a minute. I love my wife, and she loves me. We’re having an argument, which is to be expected in any relationship from time to time. We are not always arguing, if I added it up, we probably argue a fraction of the time we have been together. She actually understands me quite well most of the time, but right now we have a misunderstanding. If it were true that she never understands me, or that I never can express myself effectively, we would never have come to know and love each other. So that’s baloney. Right now we are having a misunderstanding, period. At some point, probably very soon, we will understand each other again. Maybe there’s a way I can help to bring that about.”
E) What you can expect through doing this is energization, feeling a sense of freedom from the pessimism and more energy regarding this issue: “I now feel some hope, and a sense of perspective on the disagreement that we’re in the midst of right now. This is my best friend I’m dealing with. I feel lighter and more secure.”
Practice this. A lot. It will not always come out perfectly, and there will likely be times when it is extremely hard to bring yourself to do this. But the more you practice this when the stakes are lower – with more minor disputes or ruminations – the more it will become second nature for you when you really need it.
It will also help your general orientation towards life to become more optimistic over time. The rewards of this in health, happiness, and resilience are well worth the investment in time and energy.
So the next time you find yourself responding to adversity with pessimism, you needn’t feel helpless, you now know you have a tool: just remember your ABC’s!