Learned Optimism: Notes & Review

learned optimism book cover

Learned Optimism is a positive psychology book. Martin Seligman, the author, explains the difference between optimists and pessimists is in thought patterns, and he teaches how we can become more optimists or, when the situation demands it, how we can strategically think more like pessimists. 

Key Insights

  • Optimists leader longer, healthier, and happier lives
  • Optimists achieve more, sell more, win more at sports and win far more political elections 
  • Optimists and pessimists have distinct explanatory styles around their live’s failures and wins
  • You can learn to become more of an optimist by learning how to change the way you think (and you can also choose to strategically think more like a pessimist)

About The Author

About the Author: Martin Seligman is an American psychologist and researcher. He is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman has been the president of the American Psychological Association (APA), and he is one of the founders and main proponents of “Positive Psychology”. He is also the author of “Flourish“ and “Authentic Happiness“.

3 Causes of Rampant Depressions in The West

Martin Seligman says that the West is struggling with the highest rates of depression that the world has ever seen.

In this opinion, the root causes are three:

  1. Individualism: in a society where “I” and personal success matter the most, failing to achieve “success” leads to depression
  2. Collapse of social networks: personal failures used to be buffered by strong social networks in the past, comprising our families, our nation, our churches, and our communities. But those are disappearing, leaving the individuals lonelier and lonelier
  3. Self-esteem movement: Roy Baumeister proved that it’s high self-esteem that leads to violence, not low self-esteem. Boosting self-esteem without matching skills creates issues, says Seligman

So if boosting self-esteem is a cause of depression and problems, what should one do?

Well, the answer lies in boosting not self-esteem, but optimism.
And that’s what “Learned Optimism” is all about: teaching optimism, and how to become more optimisms.

Optimists VS Pessimists: How They Think Differently

Optimists and pessimists think differently along 3 crucial variables:

  1. Time / Permanence: optimists see loss and rejection as temporary; pessimists see them as permanent 
  2. Specificity / Pervasiveness: optimists see loss and rejection as specific; pessimists see them as universal and as big general rejection to their whole work or personality 
  3. Personal / External optimists see loss and rejection as a consequence of the circumstances; pessimists take the blame on themselves and sees loss or rejection as a rejection of the self

Helplessness: helplessness is the ultimate state of pessimism, and it’s the belief that no matter what you do, it will be useless. People in a state of helplessness become apathetic and take no action, including in situations in which they could change their environment.

Says Seligman, whom I paraphrase here for brevity:

The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault.
The optimists think about misfortune in the opposite way. Defeat is just a temporary setback, confined to this one case, and that it’s not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about.

Measuring Your Optimism Score

Usually, you will have a good feeling whether you’re optimist or pessimist.

If not, there are several different methods to find out whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.

Another method, probably more accurate, is to measure yourself over the course of a few days.

You will record your “ABC”, such as:

  • Adversity: what happened
  • Belief: what you told yourself, how you interpret the event (first hint: they are not facts, just your own, often too negative interpretation)
  • Consequences: how you felt, what you tell yourself, and what you did

Example:

  • Adversity: you ate a cookie during your “no-sugar” diet
  • Belief: you tell yourself “I just blew my diet”, or “I suck”, or “I can’t stick to things”
  • Consequence: I felt a loser, and I ended up eating even more cookies

The ABC will also help you to know yourself better and to learn to catch your own thoughts, including the fleeting ones, as they appear daily.
This exercise will provide you with the self-awareness necessary for more effectively changing your thought patterns.

Too Optimistic VS Too Pessimistic: What They Mean For You

Can there be such a thing as “too much optimism”?

Yes.

From the quick description above, you can already see that too much optimism, or what Seligman calls “blind optimism”, can be a drag to true growth.
If you always refuse to take the blame, you will never fix your mistakes and you will never grow.

But as we will see later, one can embrace optimism without sacrificing true growth and development.

Too much pessimism, on the other hand, is overall bad for you.
I paraphrase Seligman for brevity:

Hudiciously employed, mild pessimism has its uses.
But if we habitually believe that misfortune is our fault, is enduring, and will undermine everything we do, more of it will befall us than if we believe otherwise.
I am also convinced that if we are in the grip of this view, we will get depressed easily, we will accomplish less than our potential, and we will even get physically sick more often. Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling

In short: mild pessimism deployed strategically can help us grow.
But heavy doses of pessimism spread throughout our lives will only make us sadder, and less effective.

You Can Choose To Think More Optimistically or Pessimistically

Habits of thoughts must not be either-or.

You don’t have to necessarily always think like a pessimist, or like an optimist.

If you are generally pessimistic, then you can start adopting the thought patterns of an optimist.
And you can choose to strategically think more like a pessimist when evaluating true risk becomes crucial for intelligent decision-making.

Optimism As Personal Power

Remember that the ultimate state of pessimism is one where you don’t believe any of your actions matter?

Well, when you have that type of mindset, you feel powerless.
On the other hand, when you optimistically think that your actions do matter, you feel more in power.

However, you also are more powerful for the simple fact of taking more action.
Because there are events in which you have no control whatsoever. And some in which you have 100% control. But there are a lot of events over which you have a limited amount of control. When you seek to control those variables, your personal power increases, and you exert more influence over your environment.

Says Seligman:

Many things in life are beyond our control (…) But there is a vast, unclaimed territory of actions over which we can take control—or cede control to others or to fate.
The way we think about this realm of life can actually diminish or enlarge the control we have over it.

When you think optimistically, you are more likely to influence the world and get what you want, and that’s the definition of power.

Optimism Is An Antidote Against Failure, & The Trait of Resilience

How you explain events matters a lot.

It matters because, says Seligman, a failure makes everyone at least momentarily helpless.

But to the optimist, it’s a momentary failure, and “tomorrow it’s another day”.
For the pessimist, the failure lingers, and it prevents them from going forward and trying again.

  • Permanence: it determines for how long a person stops trying
  • Pervasiveness: it determines what areas of one’s life the failure will affect
  • Personalization: people who blame themselves will have lower self-esteem, while people who blame external events have a resilient self-esteem in the face of failures

Hope depends on permanence and pervasiveness, and they are the most important dimensions because they determine whether or not you will try again.
Says Seligman:

Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.

Depression, Its Causes: & How to Cure It

Seligman starts with a quick history of depression:

How Depression Was Understood & Cured

Historically, depression was explained in just to ways: psychoanalytic, and biomedical.

The Freudian / psychoanalytic had little evidence and it’s been proven wrong.
The biomedical is partly true: some depressions are the consequences of mental imbalances and poor functioning brains and are, to some extent, inherited. The typical cures of drugs and electroconvulsive therapy (“shock treatment”) are quick and moderately effective.

The problem with the biomedical explanations is that it generalizes from a small number of hard-core, inherited patients, to the general population of depressed individuals who might not even need any external help or drugs.

Says Seligman:

The antidepressant drugs are as good an example of our overmedicated society as the use of tranquilizers to bring peace of mind or hallucinogens to see beauty.

Curing Depression Through Learned Optimism

Depression and learned helplessness are very similar, says Seligman.

And, for most people, depression is not a matter of genes, but a consequence of thought patterns.

The two most important ones being:

  1. Learned helplessness: it’s the giving up based on the belief that you have no power to change anything around you. Uncontrollable events, failures, and bad explanatory styles after failures cause learned helplessness 
  2. Explanatory styles: it’s the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen, and it includes the three dimensions we discussed above (time, specificity, personal agency)

Says Seligman:

A failure or a defeat can teach you that you are now helpless, but learned helplessness will produce only momentary symptoms of depression—unless you have a pessimistic explanatory style. If you do, then failure and defeat can throw you into a full-blown depression. On the other hand, if your explanatory style is optimistic, your depression will be halted.
(…)
Learned helplessness becomes full-blown depression when the person who fails is a pessimist.

You can cure helplessness when you show people that their actions matter, and if you teach them to think differently about their failures.
To “inoculate” against learned helplessness, you must teach people their actions can make a difference.

Similarly, you can cure depression by changing your thinking, which is what Aaron Beck did with cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive therapy, says Seligman, cures depression patients by making them more optimistic. 
And once they learn to change their own thought patterns, depressive patients also see fewer relapses, because they learn to cure themselves.

Rumination: The Enabler of Depression 

Rumination, or mulling over bad events, is an enabler for depression.

If someone has pessimistic explanatory styles but is action-oriented and does not ruminate, he will avoid depression.
It’s when bad explanatory styles combine with rumination, that depression sets in.

Here is how the chain of events unfolds:

  1. There is a threat or failure
  2. You think you are helpless to do anything about it
  3. You see the threat’s cause as permanent, pervasive, and personal
  4. Consequently, you expect to be helpless in the future, and in many situations
  5. You get depressed

The more you are inclined to ruminate, the more you repeat this cycle.
Brooding, or thinking how bad things are, often starts this sequence.

Says Seligman:

Changing either rumination or pessimism helps relieve depression. Changing both helps the most.

Why Women Are More Depressed

Women are twice as likely to be depressed than men are because they tend to act less, and think more about problems (rumination).

Says Seligman:

Men tend to act rather than reflect, but women tend to contemplate their depression, mulling it over and over, trying to analyze it and determine its source. Psychologists call this process of obsessive analysis rumination.

Ruminator by itself only means that people mull over bad events.
But a ruminator can be either optimistic, or pessimistic. It’s the pessimistic ones that are in trouble.

The 5 Steps of Cognitive Therapy

  1. Learn to recognize the automatic thoughts popping in your mind when you feel down. These can be automatic phrases or sentences you repeat so often that can go almost unnoticed (and unchallenged)
  2. Learn to dispute the automatic thoughts by:
    1. Finding contrary evidence: learned optimism, contrary to positive thinking, is grounded in reality. So you should look for evidence contrary to your current negative thoughts and conclusions. The good news is that reactions to negative events are most often overreactions, so most of the times you will have facts and data on your side 
    2. Finding Alternative explanation: most events have many causes. Pessimists latch onto the nastiest of those possible causes, the ones that paint them in the worst possible light and the ones that pain them the most. By looking at all the causes, you get both a more realistic picture, and a less pessimistic one. You can -and probably should- also focus on the causes that you can change, so that you can already start thinking about solutions 
    3. Distract yourself: you learn how to distract yourself from depressing thoughts and avoid rumination. One simple and neat technique, especially good when you need to focus, is to put off. You can learn to control not only what you think, but when you think it.
    4. Question the depression-sowing assumptions: “I can’t live without love” or “unless everything I do is perfect, I’m a failure.” are the type of premises that set you up for depression. Just as you can change your explanatory styles from pessimistic to optimistic, you can also choose a new set of more human premises to live by

Optimism Is The Key Ingredient for Tenacity

Yes, optimists achieve more.

Through a series of studies of insurance salespeople at Metropolitan Life, Seligman found out that that the people who performed best were the optimists.

He also found out using CAVE technique analysis of previous statements, that optimistic sports team in both NBA and baseball bounce back more easily from previous defeats and, ultimately, win more. 
The same results held true for swimmers and, importantly, optimist politicians also win more elections.

Optimism also intersects with a growth mindset as researched by Carol Dweck.
With a growth mindset, people believe they can learn and improve through hard work.

For more on how optimism helps you succeed in your career, read:

When Pessimism is Good

Alright, we got it:

It’s better to be an optimist.

But in the beginning, we also said that sometimes “blind optimism” can stunt your growth, and that sometimes pessimism is either warranted, or help you make better decisions.

Says Seligman:

Pessimism may support the realism we so often need.
(…)
Sometimes we need to cut our losses and invest elsewhere rather than find reasons to hold on.
And in some situations—the cockpit of an airliner, for example—what’s needed is not an upbeat view but a mercilessly realistic one. 

In sum, it’s great to become an optimist, but it’s best of all to be able to choose when to be an optimist and when to be a pessimist.

So, when should you be a pessimist, and when should you be an optimist?
Seligman says it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Optimism is green, pessimism is red:

Use optimism:

  • When the costs of failure are low
    • Making one more
    • Approaching or not approaching someone
  • When you need to a stick to a habit, but you failed in a single instance
  • In achievement situations such as selling, writing, winning a game or promotion
  • When you want to feel better, or are struggling with depression
  • If it’s an ongoing issue you can’t fix
  • If you want to lead and inspire others

Use pessimism:

  • When the costs of failures are high
    • Pilots in the cockpit
    • Tipsy and deciding whether to drive or not
    • Frustrated partner deciding whether to start an affair or not
  • You need to plan for a risky or uncertain feature

And, out of emotional intelligence, avoid going too high in optimism when you are comforting or consoling someone (they need to vent first).

A Brief History of Psychology

“Learned Optimism” is a wonderful text for students of psychology as it also provides an overview of the history of psychology.

  • Humans without agency: Up until the 1960s psychology saw humans as either pushed by internal drives (Freudians), or pulled by external events (Skinner behavioralists and Clark Hull ethologists)
  • 1965, the emergence of self-direction: things began to change in 1965, and four different development helped psychology move beyond Freudian psychoanalysis and Skinner’s behaviorism
    1. Chomsky and generative language:  Noam Chomsky argued that language and human behavior could originate not from previous reinforcement, but internally. New sentences can be understood and drive new action without any previous 
    2. Jean Piaget and children’s development: Jean Piaget showed that we can study how children develop, and what and how they learn will shape their development
    3. Cognitive Psychology: with the publication of Ulric Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology the world started moving towards the working of the inner mind (the initial analogy was with computers as a model, later criticized by evolutionary psychology, see Miller, 2000)
    4. Behavioral psychology wake up calls: researchers found out that drives and needs couldn’t by themselves explain all animal and human behavior, and started to invoke cognitions -or thoughts- to explain complex behavior

Real-Life Applications

The real-life applications of “Learned Optimism” are life-changing.

  • Learn to switch between optimism and strategic pessimism

You can decide to think more strategically and focus on the dangers when you need to reach critically important decisions, or think more like an optimist when you need to persevere and/or be happy.

This is a hugely empowering tool to put in your arsenal.

More Wisdom

  • Women are both sadder and happier than men: being more emotionally labile (Seligman’s own words), women experience both higher highs and lower lows
  • Average optimistic scores are OK for normal times: if you score in the average range, it’s OK for normal times. But in crises and hardships, it might not be enough

Quotes

On Freud’s theories of depression:

Freud’s speculations were built on very little observation and a very free use of imagination.

On Albert Ellis and his approach to revolutionizing psychology and psychiatry:

Ellis, invited to speak, proposed some such title as “Masturbate Now” for his presentation. The president of Princeton, usually a man of unflappable fairness, had him disinvited.

On Albert Ellis and the results he got with early cognitive behavior therapy, which back then was revolutionary:

He would demand that his patients stop thinking wrong and start thinking right. Surprisingly, most of his patients got better. Ellis successfully challenged the hallowed belief that mental illness is an enormously intricate, even mysterious phenomenon.

My Note: Albert Ellis uses REBT, and Ellis himself seemed adamt to stress the differences between the two. Also read “How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything“.

On self-development as a self-fulfilling prophecy:

The belief in self-improvement is a prophecy just as self-fulfilling as the old belief that character could not be changed.

Criticism

I loved “Learned Optimism”, so consider the following more like small issues on an overall seminal book:

1. Academia Power Dynamics (& Seligman Bellicose Prose)

Research should be the tool with which people get closer to the truth. 

The ideal scientist should seek not to win, but to find out the truth.
And, potentially, how to apply the findings of that research to improve people’s lives.

Of course, reality is much different.
And the reality is a world where scientists fight for power and fame. Fighting to defend “their own” theories, trying to silence dissenters, and clinging to theories that are being proven false to maintain status and power -and out good old cognitive dissonance-.

From one side, I am grateful Seligman provides us with this account, so that people can open their eyes.
On the other hand, I am saddened Seligman doesn’t always show a higher road. 
He says:

The gauntlet was thrown down to learning theorists the world over.
Here were two callow graduate students telling the great B. F. Skinner, guru of behaviorism, and all his disciples that they were wrong in their most basic premise. The behaviorists did not blithely surrender.

And then he goes on telling us how the behaviorist fought not for truth, but to prove they were “right”.

And he describes their “counterattack plans”:

That is where things stood in 1965 when we prepared our counterattack against the behaviorists.
(…)
And to drive the behaviorists into full retreat

The description of this internal warfare is unsavory. Seligman would have done better if he had framed his position as “for truth”, instead of “against these other guys”.

It’s a pity that is not the case, since Seligman himself says:

I’ve never had much use for the tendency among psychologists to shun criticism.
It’s a longstanding tradition acquired from the field of psychiatry, with its medical authoritarianism (…) going back at least to Freud, research psychiatry has been dominated by a handful of despots who treat dissenters like invading barbarians usurping their domain. One critical word from a young disciple and he was banished. I’ve preferred the humanistic tradition. To the scientists of the Renaissance, your critic was really your ally, helping you advance upon reality.

True. 
But it didn’t always feel like it. 
I think one of Seligman’s error was to borrow so many words and expressions from military campaigns, which give readers the feeling he also feels the same way -and that’s an issue with the English language, in general-.

2. Nationalistic beyond what’s expected from a scientist

Says Seligman:

If this epidemic continues, I believe that America’s place in the world will be in jeopardy. America will lose its economic place to less pessimistic nations than ours, and this pessimism will sap our will to bring about social justice in our own country.

Mr. Seligman, science belongs to the people. 
The idea that research should be used to prop up international power orders is not a mindset deserving of a true scientist.

Update

I later read Seligman’s “The Circuit of Hope“, which is basically Seligman’s autobiography. 
Seligman dedicates plenty of space to criticize the “left-wing psychologists who took over APA”, and who “attacked him for being an ultra-nationalist”.

3. Sometimes self-congratulatory

It’s a normal human need to be recognized for one’s own work.
Some scientists hide it better than others, while others are more open about self-promotion
Seligman seems to be more part of the latter category.

He often lavishes praises on his students, which is nice.
And sometimes he likes to take a little bit of that credit as well, which is OK.

Some other times, it might feel as if he was (unwittingly) devaluing others.

For example, of the first time he was introduced to experiments on dogs and electric shocks, he says he had already understood the concept of learned helplessness:

As I listened to Overmier and then looked at the whimpering dogs, I realized that something much more significant had already occurred than any result the transfer experiment might produce: Accidentally, during the early part of the experiment, the dogs must have been taught to be helpless.

It might be. 
But that was just a hunch, and everyone has hunches.
When Seligman describes the situation the way he did, he indirectly devalues professor Solemon and Overmier, who now might come across as very un-bright researchers for missing the obvious link.

This is a form of social climbing which I call “social climbing in absentia“.

It’s the same attitude I find in Steven Pinker (see the criticism of “Enlightened Now” and “How the Mind Works“).

4. Some Unneeded Evolutionary Psychology & Sociological Analysis

Seligman spends several pages investigating why evolution has endowed with pessimism at all.

And, later, why our society is more pessimistic than it’s ever been.

Some of those reflections were good, and Seligman makes great points.
Some others felt a bit more random, and even propagandist.

Says Seligman:

More “primitive” societies go out of their way to nurture the individual when loss occurs, and thus prevent helplessness from becoming hopelessness.
(…) When a Kaluli’s pig runs away and he displays his grief over the loss, the tribe will give him another pig. Loss is recompensed by the group, and helplessness does not escalate into hopelessness.

This is nonsense.

It sounds like Seligman might be on the left-wing of the political spectrum. And even if he isn’t, he fell for the typical noble savage idealism that many left-wing folks fall prey to.
The truth is that primitive societies can be as ruthless and selfish as our modern societies are. Often more, since they’re fighting for their lives and have little surplus (see Pinker, 2018).

Overall, I thought the book could have been even better without those off-topics analyses. Those theses, deprived of evidence, only took some authority away. 

5. Are Pessimists Wiser… Or Not?

In “Authentic Happiness” Seligman says that it might not true that pessimists might be wiser, after all.

But here he said that:

There is considerable evidence that depressed people, though sadder, are wiser.
(…)
These have been the consistent findings over the last decade.
(…)
Overall, then, there is clear evidence that nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving direction and depressed people tend to see reality accurately.

So, which one is which?
I personally feel like pessimists are more realistic, but probably not as much as the evidence showed when “Learned Optimism” was written.

6. Could be briefer

“Learned Optimism” is a monument to not only Positive Psychology but to psychology in general.
But it could have been better edited, briefer, and avoided many repetitions.

PROS

  • Life-changing wisdom

As I’ve already said, this is life-changing information.

  • Learn how academia really works

Martin Seligman is very open about the true power dynamics that govern academia.

You might be disappointed at how science truly advances behind the curtains (see criticism above).
But you will certainly be more knowledgeable -and empowered- because of it.

Review

“Learned Optimism”… What a monument to personal empowerment. 

Absolutely recommended. 
Learning self-help from actual scientists is far better than learning it from self-help gurus.

And I must say this in spite I don’t personally like the author, at least as he comes across from his own writing.

Note: Avoid the audiobook!
The audiobook is only a very shortened version and most of the narration goes to read out loud the exercises.
This summary you’re reading here goes deeper than the whole audiobook, so if you want more, go for the ebook or paper book.

Check the:

Or get the book on Amazon

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