Half Full, Half Empty: Learning to Be an Optimist
Peak performers—those who consistently excel in their chosen professions—share a number of attributes which ensure their success: self-confidence, drive, adaptability, sound business judgment, and superior interpersonal skills. But the single attribute which encompasses all these qualities, and which sets high achievers apart from average employees, is a high level of optimism.
Optimists expect positive results because they view themselves in control of the events in their lives. Optimists handle frustration and stress more efficiently, naturally assuming that they can work through problems by concentrating on solutions rather than feeling like helpless victims of circumstance. What’s more, optimists create healthier social support systems by raising the self-esteem of their co-workers and tend to be more self-motivated, resourceful, and decisive in challenging circumstances.
There can be no doubt that recruiters and hiring organizations rate optimism as preeminent on their list of traits to look for in potential candidates. But what if you’re not naturally an optimist? Can optimism be learned?
According to Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism, the answer is “yes”. While studying experimental psychology in graduate school, Seligman discovered from animal studies that helplessness—giving up in passive defeat when exposed to unpleasant circumstances—is a learned behavior. This state of consciousness leads to blundered, closed-loop thinking—if the situation is hopeless, then why even bother to try to escape it? Applying these findings to his depressed patients, Seligman reasoned that many people are victims of what he termed “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness theory states that an individual who believes he has no control over external events will be unlikely to make the effort necessary to achieve objectives. Instead, he gives up quickly and universally blames himself when he makes mistakes (“I’m stupid”) or outside forces (“Everyone’s against me” or “The world is unfair”). In other words, an individual’s expectation of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But what about optimists? All of us experience uncontrollable bad events in our lives, and yet not everyone responds with learned helplessness. Some people are able to take adversity in stride, to persist and overcome difficulties. Therefore, Seligman wondered, if helplessness can be learned, then why not optimism?
Seligman discovered that the ability to bounce back from setbacks and defeats is not some inborn quality, but rather a learned strategy for handling adversity. When traumatic or stressful events happen in our lives, we interpret them according to our personal belief systems and then develop a worldview based on these interpretations. People who resist helplessness (optimists) believe that the causes of bad events are temporary and can be changed. They expect success. Moreover, they don’t beat up on themselves when things go wrong. Optimists tend to see adversity as a challenge, a problem as an opportunity, and so can more easily rebound after setbacks.
“It’s not reality itself that’s the problem,” writes Seligman. “We all suffer tragic realities, but it’s how you see reality that makes the difference.”
So how can optimism be learned? The key lies in what Seligman calls an individual’s “explanatory style”—that is, when things go wrong, what you think and what you say to yourself will determine whether you give up or make the effort to change things for the better. This is the essence of a style of psychology called “cognitive therapy”.
To train people to become learned optimists, Seligman advocates a technique called “disputation”.
The first step in the disputation technique is to identify personal self-defeating beliefs (“I’m a failure”, “The world is an awful place”, “No one likes me”, etc.).
Next, argue against these beliefs, challenge them, shoot them down. This can be accomplished in several ways:
- Dispute a negative belief by showing it to be factually incorrect (“Just because I screwed up the presentation doesn’t mean that I’m stupid or a failure”).
- Focus on what is changeable (“I should rehearse more next time”); on the specific (“I just didn’t get enough sleep the night before”); and the non-personal (“Everybody makes mistakes”).
- Detail all the ways you can change the situation in the future.
These cognitive techniques enable people to challenge and change their internal dialogues which often go unquestioned and which can lead to pessimism and depression.
This is not to say that Seligman advocates a rosy-eyed, Pollyanna approach to life. Instead he recommends a “flexible optimism”—that is, optimism with an accurate appreciation of reality, with eyes wide open to the worst case and best case scenarios.
Many of the events which befall us are uncontrollable, but it's better to err on the side of optimism, to assume a positive outcome and act on the belief that success is achievable. As Shakespeare wrote: “Nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”.