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Positive psychology is a recent movement in psychology, which emphasises the scientific study of strengths as opposed to weaknesses. While Psychology has often examined what can go wrong with people, positive psychology attempts to examine what goes right with people. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan on writing about some of this research. Today we’re looking at ‘Learned Optimism’

Martin Seligman is credited as being the father of positive psychology. In his earlier work, he proposed the ‘Learned Helplessness‘ theory of depression: Depressed people learn hopelessness from previous situations, and come to think that there is no way to get out of unpleasant situations. Later in his career, Seligman instead wrote about ‘Learned Optimism’ and how people can move from hopelessness to optimism (see these lecture notes  or this book review).

Optimism depends on an individuals explanatory styles:

  • Permanence. Optimistic people tend to view good things as being the norm, while negative events are viewed as ‘one offs’. Negative events set everyone back, but people viewing these events as not being permanent recover quicker.
  • Pervasiveness. Optimistic people tend to view the good things that happen to them as global, affecting all of their life, while bad things that happen only apply to the area in which the negative event occured. So, good events affect a lot, whereas negative events are somewhat isolated and meaningless.
  • Personalisation. Optimistic people tend to accept good things as being a product of their own effort, while negative events are the product of external events. So when things go wrong, it needn’t be viewed as being your fault.

In order to move from Learned Hopelessness to Learned Optimism, an ABCDE exercise similar to cognitive restructuring is suggested:

  • Adversity – Identify the negative event that is occuring
  • Belief – Identify the thoughts you have about the event
  • Consequences – Examine what happens when you think such thoughts, how it affects your feelings, and actions.
  • Disputation – There are two main ways suggested to deal with these consequences, distract yourself from such thoughts, or, for a more long term solution, dispute with the beliefs, using one of the following techniques:
    • Evidence – Often negative beliefs are unrealistic. Show yourself that the negative belief is wrong, by asking whether there is any real evidence for what you’re thinking.
    • Alternatives – There are usually a number of alternative explanations for what has happened, but people often adopt the most negative one. As yourself whether you could explain what has happened in another way
    • Implications – Even if a negative belief is correct, it’s not the end of the world. People can often make things seem a lot worse than they actually are, by expecting themselves to be perfect. Sometimes it’s just a matter of accepting that we might have a small flaw – without forgetting also have a lot of good points as well.
    • Usefulness – In some situations, it’s better to think pragmatically than being caught up by negative beliefs. Rather than thinking ‘there’s no way out of this situation’, it’s better to think ‘how can I attempt to get out of this situation?’
  • Energization – The usual product of changing beliefs like this is that you will be more likely to engage with the situation, and to come up with ways to approach whatever is affecting you in the first place, leading to you feeling better about the situation, and yourself.

So, there’s an approach that you might find helpful. It might help to go through the exercise with a past situation, or a hypothetical situation, and look at what you would do should it happen to you.

April 2009