(And does it matter?)

Let’s find out!   Do you believe that –

  1. Bad events last a long time
  2. Bad events are temporary setbacks
  3. That they undermine everything you do
  4. You have no control over them
  5. Bad events are your fault
  6. Bad events are not your fault
  7. Obstacles are a challenge
  8. You persevere through bad events
  9. You give up on them
  10. You feel depressed and helpless about bad events

If you ticked YES to 2,6,7, and 8 then you are an optimist.

If you ticked YES to 1,3,4,5,9 and 10 then you are not an optimist!

Martin Seligman a professor and psychologist from Pennsylvania University wrote a book called “Learned Optimism” and another called “The Optimistic Child” (how to raise one).

Seligman did a lot of research with animals and noticed that some demonstrated what he called “learned helplessness” which means that they believed that whatever they did could not change their situation. These animals just gave up trying. Seligman also coined a term “attributional style”, and this came from observing people, and how they explained, or attributed the meaning of life events to themselves. For example, they believed they would not have control over a situation and this would mean they never would have control in their lives. (NB none of us has absolute control over our life events, but we do have some control, at times.)

Seligman thought that if a person had an optimistic attributional style, then they probably would not develop learned helplessness, but that they would believe they had some control over their situation and would keep on trying to solve their problems, putting them in the best light, or at the very least, accepting them in a positive way.

If a person had a pessimistic way of explaining events and attributing meaning, then they were more likely to perceive that they had no control, to show learned helplessness and give up on solving their problems.

You’ll be pleased to learn that Seligman taught the “helpless” animals to solve their problem by jumping out of their cage and away from any electric shocks. He then noticed that after they had learned to escape these animals then did not later develop the “learned helplessness”. They realised that they had some control over their situation. Observing this process gave Seligman the insight that when faced with an impossible situation some people may develop learned helplessness after many futile attempts to solve their problem. However, they could also learn to be optimistic, overcome any “learned helplessness,” learn to develop coping skills, and keep on trying for a solution.

Some researchers later also wondered whether pessimism was all that bad in that to be a bit pessimistic may turn out to be protective. In other words it could lead people to be more realistic, and see that things were not just black and white – good or bad. This “defensive pessimism” could spur people on if they had been too slack or overly optimistic about a situation. They could then take any corrective action necessary. Similarly, another study found that those having an “unrealistic optimism” could underestimate a risk, and not take the necessary action to avoid it.

Interestingly though, in the long term, pessimists did not do as well as optimists. So a positive and optimistic outlook on life seems preferable, as the optimist takes more control over his or her situation. An optimist can then persist more with goals, and build up coping mechanisms and resources along the way.

Most studies show that being optimistic more often leads to a healthier outcome, whereas the opposite was found for pessimism, with pessimistic people being less healthy and less successful in health, studies, work, and relationships. Long term studies following up optimists found them to be more successful in all areas of their lives than the pessimists were. And Seligman noticed that while some people are pessimistic, or have learned to be pessimistic due to life events, they can also learn to be optimistic, and perceive that they have some control over their lives.

So, getting back to the original lists of beliefs, if you believe that bad events last a long time, and that they undermine everything you do, that you have no control over them, that they are all your fault, and you might as well give up, then it will be no surprise to find that you could feel depressed and helpless.

OR – you could learn to unlearn your pessimistic beliefs by reading Martin Seligman’s book on Learned Optimism, or others of a similar nature, for example, Change Your Thinking by Sarah Edelman, and turn your thinking and your life around.

© Kathleen Crawford 2019.

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