Learned Optimism

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. The subtitle is How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Professor Seligman is the father of positive psychology. He felt that psychology had been focused almost exclusively on illness and problems. He thought that more emphasis should be placed on making people feel happy and fulfilled. You should note that there is a relatively new category of healthy memory blogs labeled ‘Positivity.”

Initially, Seligman’s renown was for documenting the finding of learned helplessness. Research with animals discovered that many of these subjects, if offered no way to free themselves from painful stimuli, would conclude that there was nothing to learn other than that they were helpless. So when given an opportunity to avoid or escape from painful stimuli, these animals would fail to do so.

Similar findings resulted with research on human subjects. Fortunately, humans can be asked about why they felt helpless. They explained that they thought that there was no way to avoid the painful or adverse situation. Even when there was a means of avoiding or stopping the situation, they still believed that that there was nothing they could do. So they had in effect learned to be helpless.

It is easy to think of people who live in poor environments with few opportunities for success. They, too, can readily conclude that there is nothing that they can do that they are victims of their environments.

This feeling that there is nothing that can be done to improve the situation provides the foundation for pessimism. On the other hand, optimists regard failures or disappointments as obstacles that they think that they can overcome. In other words, they are highly resilient.,

So what determines whether we are optimists or pessimists depends on how we think.

Seligman writes, “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think. Research has shown that what distinguishes optimists from pessimists is their explanatory style. That is how they explain the failure they are experiencing. In other words, how they think about or explain the failure is in control of the individual.

The notion that we can control our minds and on how we think and feel has long been a theme of the healthy memory blog. Blog posts on meditation and mindfulness are devoted to teaching us how to have greater control of our minds.

The subsequent posts on “Learned Optimism” will discuss research on this topic and will provide strategies for being optimistic and overcoming negative thinking.

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