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How To Be An Optimist

Martin Seligman is the recognised founder of Positive Psychology and one of his greatest contributions is his demonstration that optimism is something that can be learned, and can help anxiety and depression. In this article consider what optimism actually means before turning to how to cultivate it.

What Is Optimism?

We all know that optimism is the ability to look on the bright side, but in the learned optimism model we understand it more clearly as a set of three aspects of explanatory style.

Suppose something bad happens, for example you fail an exam. What thoughts go through your head? What's the story that your mind makes up to explain your failure?

If you're a pessimist, your thinking will tend to display these three characteristics:

  • permanent - e.g. I'm always failing exams
  • pervasive - e.g. it's not just exams, I fail at everything I try
  • personal - it's my fault because I'm not smart enough.

If you're an optimist you'll tend to see the opposite three aspects:

  • impermanent - e.g. o.k. I failed this time but next time I'll pass
  • specific - e.g. I only failed because of specific circumstances such as not having enough time to prepare
  • impersonal - e.g. it's not my fault I failed, the exam questions were unfair.

What if something good happens e.g. you passed your exam?

The same three traits come up but this time the opposite way around: optimists think success is permanent, pervasive and personal, while pessimists are the opposite.

Learned Optimism

Again, Seligman's most significant finding is that optimism in these terms can be learned. He realised this after his research demonstrated that pessimism is likewise learned, and indeed follows naturally from the experience of being powerless. Seligman showed this learned helplessness is associated with depression.

If you recognise a tendency to a bit of learned helplessness in yourself, what can you do to cultivate optimism?

Here are some steps to follow:

  1. Recognise triggers for pessimistic thinking: things going against you in some way.
  2. Identify your pessimistic beliefs and thoughts that come up. In particular, look for the three explanatory styes: permanent, pervasive, personal.
  3. Consider what the consequences are of accepting pessimistic thoughts at face value - typically it's giving up and not getting anywhere, and also feeling low and hopeless.
  4. What are some alternative explanations? Specifically, what if the knock-back was the exception rather than the rule, and not your fault in any case?
  5. "Try on" these new optimistic explanations - how would you feel if they were true? What would you do about it? Notice any signs of energy coming up.

Of course the key to all learning is repetition - you've got to keep trying this over and over. At first it will probably feel like you're going through the motions but stick with it.

The Key: Becoming Mindful

You'll notice two crucual links: first, you have to become aware when you're falling into old patterns (step 1), and then somewhere around steps 2 and 3, you're finding a way to step apart from the negative thoughts. You start to see them as thoughts rather than reality.

These are two aspects of mindfulness. You could say the learned optimism method is a kind of mindfulness practice.

How Can Biofeedback Help?

Biofeedback is more directly about influencing physiology rather than thoughts directly. But what happens when you step away from your negative thoughts as I've described above? In a way you "let go" of the thought. What I've found is that it becomes much easier to let go of negative thoughts if you can literally let go - by which I mean let go of muscle tension. This is where biofeedback can help: by training and developing your awareness of muscle tension, your ability to release it, and also other aspects of the physiology associated with negative thinking.

To learn more about learned optimism you can read Seligman's book, "Learned Optimism". Here's a short video summarising learned optimism.

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