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Learned Optimism (1991)

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Martin Seligman

Learned Optimism (1991)


Seligman is a cognitive psychologist who spent many years clinically testing the idea of 'learned helplessness'.

His experiments with mild electric shocks to dogs proved that dogs would give up trying to escape if they believed that, whatever they did, the shocks would keep coming. Another researcher tested the principle on people, using noise instead of shocks, and found that learned helplessness can be engineered in human minds just as easily. Yet the experiments contained an anomaly: as with the dog experiments, one in every three human subjects would not 'give up'; they kept trying to press buttons on a panel in an attempt to shut off the noise. What made these subjects different from the others?

Seligman thought to apply the question to real life: what makes a person pick themselves up after rejection by a lover, or another keep going when their life's work comes to nothing? He found that the ability of some people to bounce back from apparent defeat is not, as we sentimentally like to say, a 'triumph of the human will'. Rather than having an inborn trait of greatness, such people have developed a way of explaining events that does not see defeat as permanent or affecting their basic value. Nor is this trait something that 'we either have or we don't'; optimism involves a set of skills which can be learned.

Positive explanatory style

Pessimistic people tend to think that misfortune is their fault. The cause of their specific misfortune or general misery is, they believe, permanent - stupidity, lack of talent, ugliness - therefore they do not bother to change it. Few of us are wholly pessimistic, but most of us will have given pessimism free reign in reaction to particular past events. In psychology textbooks, such reactions are considered 'normal'. But Seligman says it does not have to be this way, that a different way of explaining setbacks to yourself ('explanatory style') will protect you from letting crises cast you into depression. If you have even an average level of pessimism, Seligman says, it will drag down your success in every arena of life: work, relationships, health.

The author undertook groundbreaking work for life insurance company MetLife. Life insurance is considered one of the most difficult of all sales jobs, a real spirit-crusher. The company was spending millions of dollars a year training its agents, only to see most of them move on. Instead of the usual criteria by which MetLife hired (career background, etc.), Seligman suggested that applicants be hired if they tested well for optimism and explanatory style. The result: agents hired on this basis, in the first year, did 20 per cent better than the regular recruits, and in the second, 57 per cent better. They clearly had better ways to deal with the 9 out of 10 rejections that would make the others give up.

Optimism and success

Conventional thinking is that success creates optimism, but the evidence laid out by Seligman shows the reverse to be true: on a repeat basis, optimism tends to deliver success, as the experience of the life insurance agents demonstrated. At the exact same point that a pessimist will wilt, an optimist perseveres and breaks through an invisible barrier. Not getting through this barrier is often misinterpreted as laziness or lack of talent - Seligman found that people who give up easily never dispute their own interpretation of failure or disparagement. Those who regularly 'vault the wall' listen to their internal dialogue and argue against their own limiting thoughts, quickly finding positive reasons for rejection.

The value of pessimism

Yet Learned Optimism admits there is one area in which pessimists excel: an ability to see a situation more accurately. Some professions (financial control and accounting, safety engineering), and all firms can do with a few bring-us-down-to-earth pessimists. In his book Business @ The Speed of Thought (1999), Bill Gates discusses this very trait, lauding the Microsoft employees who can tell him what is going wrong and tell him quickly.

But let’s not forget: Gates is also a dreamer par excellence, who at a very young age imagined a world in which every home and office would be using his Windows software. Seligman is clear on the point that work and life success result when we can perceive both present reality accurately and visualize a compelling future. Many people are good at one and not the other. He or she who wishes to learn optimism must keep the former skill, while becoming a better dreamer. The combination is unbeatable.

Most depression results from thinking badly

For a book about optimism, it is slightly ironic that Learned Optimism draws much of its data from studies of depression, and Seligman himself is a leading authority on sex differences in depression. He says that women are twice as likely to suffer from it because, although men and women experience mild depression at the same rate, how women think about problems tends to amplify them. Rumination on a problem, always connecting it back to some 'unchangeable' aspect of ourselves, is a recipe for the blues. Millions of dollars have been spent by America's National Institute of Mental Health to test this idea that depression (i.e. the standard variety, not bipolar or manic) results from habits of thought. Seligman tells us the results in two words: 'It does.' Moreover, developing the mental muscles of optimism significantly reduces the likelihood that we will become depressed.

Habitual optimism

But this brings us to a bigger question: why is there so much depression around these days? He argues that our historically recent preoccupation with individualism creates its own form of mental shackle. Invited to believe in our own endless possibilities, any form of failure becomes devastating. Combine this with the crumbling of previously solid psychological supports - the nation, God, extended family - and we have an epidemic of depression.

However, while drugs like Prozac can be effective in eliminating it, there is a gap between successfully treated depression, and habitual optimism. With the positive explanatory style that Seligman recommends, problems are seen as temporary, specific and external, rather than inevitable expressions of our failure as a person. Cognitive therapy changes the basic way a person sees the world, and that altered perception tends to be permanent.

Final word

Learned Optimism is a product of the sea change that occurred in psychology in the mid-1960s. Until then, a person's behavior was considered to be either 'pushed' by internal urges (Freudianism) or 'pulled' by the rewards or punishments that society provided (behaviorism).

Cognitive therapy, however, showed that people could actually change the way they think, in spite of unconscious leanings or societal conditioning. As Seligman notes towards the end of the book, the upheavals of the modern era, like mass migration, made rapid personal change necessary; now, it is desirable. Yet we are a culture of self-improvers because we know self-improvement is possible - psychological science proves it.

Learned Optimism is an important work within the self-help field because it provides a scientific foundation for many of the claims made in it. It is a bestseller because it attracted the readers who normally would consider personal development ideas as, to use the author's phrase 'metaphysical boosterism'. The book is therefore not simply about optimism (although it may well turn you into an optimist) but the validity of personal change itself and the dynamic nature of the human condition. In that respect it will remain relevant well into the century.

Seligman's later work, Authentic Happiness, incorporates many of the findings and ideas of Learned Optimism but takes the idea of 'positive psychology' further. It is also highly recommended.



Martin E P Seligman

Born in Albany, New York, in 1942, with both parents public servants, Seligman attended the private Albany Academy for Boys in New York. He graduated Summa Cum Laude in his BA from Princeton University in 1964, and received his PhD in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967. He has been a professor of psychology at UPenn since 1976.

In 1998 he was elected to President of the American Psychological Association from whom he has also received two Distinguished Scientific Contribution awards. Past presidents include William James, John Dewey, Abraham Maslow and Harry Harlow. According to a study by Haggbloom et al, Seligman was the 13th most frequently cited psychologist in introductory psychology textbooks in the 20th century.

Seligman has authored 200 academic articles and twenty books, including: Helplessness (1975, 1993), Abnormal Psychology (1982, 1995) with David Rosenhan, Learned Optimism (1991), What You Can Change & What You Can't (1993), The Optimistic Child (1995), Authentic Happiness (2002) and Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (2011).

He is married and has seven children.


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