Are you in the habit of being a ‘glass half empty’ person, a bit of a pessimist? If so you can learn to become more optimistic, learn how to fill that glass even if you’re easily discouraged. You can steadily learn how to change your habitual reactions. Here’s why it matters, and how Martin Seligman’s approach and techniques can help you.
Who is Martin Seligman?
Martin Seligman is widely known as the originator of Positive Psychology, the man who developed it, and he’s a thought leader in the disciplines of resilience, learned helplessness, depression, optimism and pessimism. He’s also recognised as having something important to say about interventions designed to deal with depression, build inner strength, and boost well-being.
How does positive psychology move us in a different direction?
How can being positive help us to be more resilient and lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives?
Optimism is powerful. As a general rule optimists achieve more. It is well known that they do live longer, healthier lives. Pessimists tend to give up more easily, are prone to depression, and even get ill more easily.
How can you tell who’s who? It’s usually pretty obvious thanks to someone’s explanatory style, the way they explain themselves and the world around them. A pessimist tends to blame themselves or their circumstances when things go wrong, seeing failure as evidence of their worthlessness, devaluing their attributes and successes at every opportunity. They focus on their weaknesses and mistakes and soon lose motivation when faced with difficulties. They tend to be more stressed, and sometimes feel so overwhelmed that they become prone to shutting down.
An optimist often persists despite difficulties and see difficulties as part of everyone’s experience. They see failure as a natural part of life, and do credit themselves with their attributes and accomplishments, generally focusing on their strengths. They’re more motivated in the face of problems and harness the stress they feel to help them meet their goals. In other words they tend to work harder to uncover solutions.
Pessimism leans into being permanent, pervasive and personal, whereas optimism isn’t pervasive, nor is it so personal. It’s a great deal more flexible and open, and it more naturally leaves room for change and improvement.
People who believe themselves unintelligent rather than uneducated don’t so readily take action to improve their mind. When you believe you can change your thinking, you will and often do change your thinking – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Seligman’s world success is determined by aptitude, motivation and optimism, and we can all harness them to our advantage.
Here’s a video of a cartoon artist reviewing Seligman’s book in pictures, talking about learned helplessness, optimists and pessimists:
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About learned helplessness
According to Wikipedia ‘Learned helplessness is behaviour that occurs when the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape from or avoid.‘ Let’s put it another way. When tough things happen, we like to think we’d do everything possible to change the situation. But research into learned helplessness reveals that when we feel we don’t have any control over a situation, we simply give up and accept our fate. When we feel that way we often start behaving in a helpless way, unable to act, paralysed by the situation. And this leads us to overlook opportunities to change.
Feeling helpless and pessimistic, can be debilitating and that low mood can be hard for others to be around too. It makes us feel low, gets in the way of achieving goals, makes work and life an uphill struggle. If that’s you, there’s hope. You’re not stuck with it. You can learn to over time to become more optimistic and experience the advantages that optimism brings.
How pessimists react to the 3 Ps
The way we explain events is tied up with the 3 Ps.
- Permanence – Pessimists often take longer to recover from setbacks, or might never recover. They think positive events are transient and there are also permanent causes for negative events. pessimists point to permanent causes
- Pervasiveness– Pessimists tend to assume that failure in one area always means failure in life in general
- Personalisation – Pessimists blame themselves for events and quickly externalise them
Seligman’s TED Talk about developing positive psychology and how it can help you
In his TED Talk, Martin explains more about the development of positive psychology and its many benefits.
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As you’ll see, Seligman suggests that once we understand our strengths and start to shape our lives with them in mind, we can live and work better by using them. And that means we ultimately move towards the meaningful and engaging, things like our aptitudes, motivation and a generally optimistic attitude. Greater positivity really can be learned and applied.
Here’s a link to Martin’s excellent book
The ABCDE – Seligman’s method
Seligman suggests it’s relatively simple to learn optimism and train yourself to see the world – and react to adversity – in a more useful way. And that means learning to talk yourself through personal defeat until you emerge into the sunshine on the other side.
It all starts with the Ellis ABC model of adversity, belief, and consequence. Adversity is what happens, belief interprets that adversity, and the feelings we get afterwards – and the actions we take – are the consequences. Imagine someone steps on your foot in a crowd. You immediately believe they’re inconsiderate and careless, and as a consequence you have a go at them. It’s important to understand these knee-jerk reactions and interpretations.
It can help to keep a journal, where you jot down all the little adverse events you experience, plus the beliefs and consequences that follow. When you read it through afterwards, you’ll be able to clearly see pessimism at work. Maybe the person who stood on your foot was distressed, or lost, or even unable to see very well.
Seligman adds disputation and energisation to the list, creating an ABCDE method. Disputation involves creating counter arguments to negative beliefs in general, the causes of an event, and its implications. It also involves moving on from the adversity, for example – as in the foot stepping example above – by realising you’re over-reacting. It needs a slowing down of the thinking and reacting down. Catching yourself in the moment and putting a pause between the stimulus and your response.
Give it time and your reactive responses can become more hopeful and positive, and that’s energising. Once you’re energised, it’s time to acknowledge that you are thinking more positively and it is paying dividends in your life.
The benefits? You start to realise the world doesn’t really have it in for you. You understand that you can have agency and you are actually capable of a great deal more than you realised. Your glass becomes half full rather than half empty. You like yourself more, you’re easier to work with and the benefits of this virtual circle begin to emerge.
6 steps to cultivate learned optimism
Can we learn to be more optimistic? Yes, we can. Here’s some insight.
- Continually observe your thoughts and feelings – Take time to understand how you talk to yourself! Take note when you see pessimistic thinking and the mental barriers it throws up. Tell yourself you’ll be able to figure things out. It might take a little more time and repeat it until you feel calmer and clearer.
- Practice changing the way you think – Centre yourself using your favourite relaxation technique. Then actively and consistently cultivate gratitude for the small things that you have in your life right now and have perhaps overlooked. Be kinder to yourself and pass on that kindness in words and actions when and wherever you can.
- Make elephant sandwiches – no task is too big or scary when you break it down into digestible chunks. So jot down a list of the small steps that make up the task, and notice how every broken-down task eventually starts to look perfectly manageable. If you don’t know where to begin, start off with a small task you know you can do easily and well. And ask yourself who can help you – there’s no reason why you can’t ask for help.
- Actually start – but start easy, with one small task. That’ll give you the courage to take the next small step, and the next, and the next. Before you know it, you’ll be well on the way to your goal.
- Recognise and acknowledge it, every time you take a step forward. Take a moment to note that progress, however small it might seem.
- Now you’re starting to feel the task is actually achievable, go with the flow. Create a detailed project plan to keep you on track, keep up with all of the above as you move forwards, keep repeating the process.
Create a more positive outlook and reap the benefits
If you would like to explore further how to develop a more optimistic, positive outlook and to reap the benefits in your professional life, do get in touch. We will be delighted to hear from you.