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Learned optimism is the idea in positive psychology that a talent for joy, like any other, can be cultivated. It is contrasted with learned helplessness. Learning optimism is done by consciously challenging any negative self talk.
Learned optimism was defined by Martin Seligman and published in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. The benefits of an optimistic outlook are many: Optimists are higher achievers and have better overall health. Pessimism, on the other hand, is much more common; pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity or to suffer from depression. Seligman invites pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism—one that grew from pessimism—is a learned optimism. The optimist's outlook on failure can thus be summarized as "What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive)".
Other differences exist between pessimists and optimists in terms of explanatory style:
- Permanence: Optimistic people believe bad events to be more temporary than permanent and bounce back quickly from failure, whereas others may take longer periods to recover or may never recover. They also believe good things happen for reasons that are permanent, rather than seeing the transient nature of positive events. Optimists point to specific temporary causes for negative events; pessimists point to permanent causes.
- Pervasiveness: Optimistic people compartmentalize helplessness, whereas pessimistic people assume that failure in one area of life means failure in life as a whole. Optimistic people also allow good events to brighten every area of their lives rather than just the particular area in which the event occurred.
- Personalization: Optimists blame bad events on causes outside of themselves, whereas pessimists blame themselves for events that occur. Optimists are therefore generally more confident. Optimists also quickly internalize positive events while pessimists externalize them.
Martin Seligman’s learned optimism now orients the armed services’ psychological stance. Keith Ablow blamed this in part for the actions of the U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan. He wrote that soldiers are “taught to deny stress and trauma, and false bravado is actually encouraged, under the banner of ‘resilience.’ It’s a bad, bad idea that pushes soldiers to ‘fake good’ until they fall apart. And, then, the system continues to withhold needed care, particularly of a psychotherapeutic, insight-oriented variety.”
Seligman came to the concept of learned optimism through a scientific study of learned helplessness, the idea that a certain reoccurring negative event is out of the person's control. As he was performing tests to study helplessness further, he began to wonder why some people resisted helplessness-conditioning. He noticed that, while some subjects blamed themselves for negative outcomes, others blamed the experiment for setting them up to fail.
Seligman shifted his focus to attempting to discover what it is that keeps some people from ever becoming helpless. The answer was optimism. Using his knowledge about conditioning people to be helpless in the lab, he shifted his focus to conditioning people to be optimists. The result of these experiments led to defining the processes of learning optimism.
In a study completed by Martin Seligman and Gregory Buchanan at the University of Pennsylvania and published by the American Psychological Association, learned optimism techniques were found to significantly reduce depression in a class of college freshmen. As incoming students to the university, a survey determined the most pessimistic students and they were invited to participate in the study. They were randomly assigned, half to attend a 16-hour workshop on the techniques of learning optimism, and half were the control group. In an 18-month follow up, 32% of the control group suffered moderate to severe depression and 15% suffered moderate to severe anxiety disorder, whereas only 22% of the workshop participants were depressed and 7% had anxiety issues. Those who participated in the learned optimism workshop also reported fewer health problems over the 18-month period of the study than those students in the control group.
A study done by Peter Schulman at the Wharton School, published in the Journal of Selling and Sales Management, looked to determine the effects of applying learned optimism in business. After measuring the optimism levels of an insurance sales force, it was determined that the optimistic sales people sold 35 percent more, and identified pessimists were two times more likely to quit in the first year than optimists. As a result of his studies, he recommends testing sales job candidates for optimism levels to fit them to appropriate positions, training employees in learned optimism techniques, and designing an organization overall to have attainable goals set and good support from management.
Finally, a study conducted by Mark Ylvisaker of the College of Saint Rose and Timothy Feeney of the Wildwood Institute looked at children with executive function impairment. The children had brain functioning impairments affecting motor skills, memory, or the ability to focus. Learned optimism was not taught to the children themselves, but rather to their caretakers, who oftentimes are more likely to feel helpless than optimistic in regards to caring for the child. It was found that learned optimism in caretakers of children with brain damage actually led the children to develop more functioning than children without optimistic caretakers. Thus Ylvisaker concludes that the optimism of professional rehabilitators can affect the results of their clients.
Seligman’s Method of Learning Optimism 
According to Martin Seligman, anyone can learn optimism. Whether currently an optimist or a pessimist, benefits can be gained from exposure to the process of learned optimism to improve response to both big and small adversities. A test developed by Seligman is used to determine an individual’s base level of optimism and sort them on a scale. Being in the more pessimistic categories means that learning optimism has a chance of preventing depression, helping the person achieve more, and improve physical health.
Seligman’s process of learning optimism is simple, and trains a new way of responding to adversity. Namely, the person learns to talk themself through personal defeat. It begins with the Ellis' ABC model of adversity, belief, and consequence. Adversity is the event that happens, belief is how that adversity is interpreted, and consequences are the feelings and actions that result from the beliefs. This is demonstrated in the example below:
- Adversity: Someone cuts you off in traffic.
- Belief: You think, “I can’t believe that idiot was so rude and selfish!”
- Consequence: You are overcome with anger, yelling profanity at the other driver.
This is a somewhat graphic example, but should present a good idea of what each component of ABC looks like. In the journey to learning optimism, one must first understand one's natural reaction to and interpretation of adversity. In order to do so, learners are asked to keep a journal, for two days, of small adverse events and the beliefs and consequences that followed. Next the learner simply returns to the journal to highlight pessimism (e.g, pervasiveness: "it doomed me...") in their written descriptions of the events.
Seligman adds to the ABC model, making his model ABCDE. D stands for disputation, which centers around providing counter-evidence to any of the following: the negative beliefs in general, the causes of the event, or the implications. D also means reminding oneself of any potential usefulness of moving on from the adversity. Disputation for the above traffic example might sound like this: “I am overreacting. I don’t know what situation he is in. Maybe he is on his way to his daughter’s piano recital and is running late. I’m sure I have cut people off before without meaning to, so I should really cut him a break. I am not in a hurry anyway.”
Over time, responses like this can change feelings to be more hopeful and positive. Successful disputation leads to energization, the E in the ABCDE model. One is energized, and should indeed try to actively celebrate, the positive feelings and sense of accomplishment that come from successful disputation of negative beliefs. Disputation and Energization (celebration) are the keys to Seligman's method.
Teaching children learned optimism by guiding them through the ABCDE techniques can help children to better deal with adversity they encounter in their lives. In addition to the same value adults can get from learning optimism, if children are taught early then the thought process of disputation becomes ingrained in them. They do not have to focus on being optimistic, but rather optimism becomes automatic and leads to a more positive life for the child.
Learned optimism techniques can be very practical to apply to anyone’s life, and are used frequently today in any area that applies psychology. Some examples include parenting, business, therapy, and education.
Learned optimism is prevalent in business because more optimistic workers are more successful workers. Seligman’s focus in business is on “the personal wall” that is each individual worker's constant point of discouragement. This could be preparing reports or making cold calls to potential clients. Putting the ABCDE model into practice allows workers to respond to this “wall” with a readiness to conquer rather than to feel dejected. Additionally, the ASQ—Attributional Style Questionnaire—is often used to measure optimism of job candidates during the interview process by asking the participant to write down causes for situational failures. Participants then rank the causes based on given criteria, and this helps businesses to know from the beginning whether the job candidate will be a high or low performer in his/her projected role based on his level of optimism.
Learned optimism is also a tool used to combat depression during cognitive behavioral therapy. Patients may be depressed in part because they have a pessimistic outlook. Rather than perceiving adversity as a constant thing that cannot be overcome, and taking personal blame for that adversity, patients come out of cognitive behavioral therapy with the belief that they can control how they respond to adversity. A shift toward optimism is a shift away from depression, and that is what makes Seligman’s techniques so useful in cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Discovery Health. Learned Optimism Yields Health Benefits. American Psychological Association, 1997.
- Seligman, Martin. Learned Optimism. New York, NY: Pocket Books. 1998.
- Schulman, Peter. "Applying Learned Optimism to Increase Sales Productivity". Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management. Volume XIX, No. 1, Winter 1999. Pages 31–37.
- Ylvisaker, Mark and Timothy Feeney. "Executive functions, self-regulation, and learned optimism in paediatric rehabilitation: a review and implications for intervention". Developmental Neurorehabilitation. Volume 5, Issue 2, April 2002, pages 51–70.
- Unless otherwise cited, all conceptual information and processes come from Seligman's book
- Discovery Health 1997
- Schulman 1999
- Ylivisaker and Feeney 2002
- Seligman worked with Steven Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, and Arthur Freeman, a psychiatrist at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, on this program using the ABC model developed by psychologist Albert Ellis.