Using Learned Optimism in Your Life

What Is Learned Optimism | Benefits of Learned Optimism

Using Learned Optimism in Your Life

Learned optimism is the process of recognizing and challenging pessimistic thoughts in order to develop more positive behaviors. This concept in psychology aims to help people find new ways to manage tough situations and improve their overall well-being.

The term “learned optimism” comes from positive psychology, a branch of psychology founded by Dr. Martin Seligman. Dr.

Seligman uses the phrase “learned optimism” to contrast “learned helplessness,” a thought pattern where someone feels unable to change negative circumstances. Under learned helplessness, you can’t change the situation and give up.

Under learned optimism, while you may not always be able to change your situation, you can change how you respond to it.

People in any situation can benefit from practicing learned optimism. Since the concept focuses on how you understand the cause of your challenges, you can apply it to many circumstances.

Benefits of Learned Optimism

Practicing positivity can have a variety of benefits for your well-being. Research suggests that learned optimism can improve your health through:

  • Improved physical health: Optimistic people may approach health problems more proactively than pessimistic people, giving them better health outcomes.
  • Better mental health: Studies show that optimists tend to report better mental well-being than pessimists. Learned optimism practices may also help you reduce the symptoms of depression.
  • Higher motivation: By practicing optimism, you can stay more motivated as you work toward goals such as Recovery.

How to Increase Your Optimism

Under learned optimism, positivity is a skill that takes practice to learn. The learned optimism process involves changing how you think about the causes of events. As you practice learned optimism, it may take a while for you to retrain your thoughts. You can try these two models to rethink how you explain the causes of your circumstances.

Use the ABCDE Model

Dr. Seligman promotes the “ABCDE” model of learned optimism, which involves asking yourself these questions about your negative thoughts:

  • Adversity: What event caused the negative thoughts?
  • Belief: How do you feel about the event?
  • Consequence: What behaviors came from your feelings about the event?
  • Disputation: What examples of events prove your negative beliefs wrong?
  • Energization: How does challenging your negative beliefs inspire you to move forward?

Recognize Cognitive Distortion With the Three P’s

You can try to reframe negative thoughts through three kinds of cognitive distortions:

  • Personalization: Instead of blaming a negative event on yourself, can you connect it to an outside cause?
  • Permanence: Instead of thinking that the negative event will affect you forever, can you make changes for the future?
  • Pervasiveness: Instead of believing that one bad event will impact every other event, can you identify it as a single event?

Maintaining Positivity During Recovery

During Recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, learned optimism can help you work toward a substance-free life. It can keep you motivated to stay in Recovery and find alternative coping methods.

As you build a new life, 7 Summit Pathways can help you stay positive and develop healthy behaviors. If you need support during Recovery, we welcome you to contact our staff or schedule an appointment today.

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Learned optimism

Using Learned Optimism in Your Life

Can you learn to have a positive outlook? And if you could…how would that change your life?

This piece is about the concept of Learned Optimism and its benefits on enhancing our well-being. If you want to lead life from a ‘glass half full’ perspective, then read on to learn more.

Our brains pick up negative information faster than positive information because we are wired to protect ourselves. The key difference between people who are happy and those who are not, is that happy people lean more towards optimism. Essentially, they’re able to see the glass half full instead of half empty.

Can you learn to have a positive outlook? And if you could…how would that change your life?

What is Learned Optimism?

It is a concept from positive psychology’s founding father, Dr Martin Seligman, which argues that we can cultivate a positive perspective.

With a more joyful outlook on life, he explains that we’re in a much better position to enhance our well-being.

According to Dr Seligman, the process of learning to be optimistic is an important way to help people maximize their mental health and live better lives.

Learned optimism involves developing the ability to view the world from a positive point of view. It is often contrasted with learned helplessness. By challenging negative self-talk and replacing pessimistic thoughts with more positive ones, people can learn how to become more optimistic.

Dr Martin Seligman’s 3 tips to Learned Optimism

  1. Permanent: No problem is permanent. When things are good, we think they will be good forever. When things are bad, we feel it will be bad forever.  Neither one is true. Nothing is permanent; life is constant change.
  2. Pervasive: It’s not pervasive, but sometimes we react as if it is.

    We think that because our finances are destroyed that our whole life is ruined. It’s not true, we have our health, our relationships, and tons of other things.

  3. Personal: We think it’s us.

    If we were smarter, prettier, stronger, if we lived over there, if we had this family, if we were taller, thinner, richer, then we wouldn’t be in this situation. We all do this. We take it personally and think that somehow, if we were XYZ (good enough) we would magically not have these “problems.” It’s not you and it’s not personal.

    Problems are a part of life (suffering is optional).

When you feel your problems are permanent, pervasive and personal, it can lead to feelings of overwhelm, helplessness and depression.

Benefits of optimism

There are a number of benefits to becoming a more optimistic person. Some of the many advantages of optimism that researchers have discovered include: 

  • Better health outcomes: A meta-analysis of 83 studies found that optimism played a significant role in health outcomes for cardiovascular disease, cancer, pain, physical symptoms and mortality.
  • Longer lifespan: Studies have shown that optimistic people tend to live longer than pessimists.
  • Lower stress levels: Optimists not only experience less stress, but they also cope with it better. They tend to be more resilient and recover from setbacks more quickly Rather than becoming overwhelmed and discouraged by negative events, they focus on making positive changes that will improve their lives.
  • Higher motivation: Becoming more optimistic can also help you maintain motivation when pursuing goals. When trying to lose weight, for example, pessimists might give up because they believe diets never work. Optimists, on the other hand, are more ly to focus on positive changes they can make that will help them reach their goals.
  • Better mental health: Optimists report higher levels of well-being than pessimists. Research also suggests that teaching learned optimism techniques can significantly reduce depression.

The ABCDE Model 

Seligman believes that anyone can learn how to become more optimistic. He developed a learned optimism test designed to help people discover how optimistic they are. People who start out more optimistic can further improve their own emotional health, while those who are more pessimistic can benefit by lowering their chances of experiencing symptoms of depression.

Seligman's approach to learning optimism is known as the «ABCDE» model of learned optimism: 

  • Adversity is the situation that calls for a response
  • Belief is how we interpret the event
  • Consequence is the way that we behave, respond, or feel
  • Disputation is the effort we expend to argue or dispute the belief
  • Energization is the outcome that emerges from trying to challenge our beliefs

Try this model to learn to be more optimistic: 


Think about a recent sort of adversity you have faced. It might be something related to your health, your family, your relationships, your job, or any other sort of challenge you might experience.

For example, imagine that you recently started a new exercise plan but you are having trouble sticking with it.


Make a note of the type of thoughts that are running through your mind when you think about this adversity. Be as honest as you can and do not try to sugarcoat or edit your feelings.

In the previous example, you might think things such as «I'm no good at following my workout plan,» «I'll never be able to reach my goals,» or «Maybe I'm not strong enough to reach my goals.» 


Consider what sort of consequences and behaviors emerged from the beliefs you recorded in step 2. Did such beliefs result in positive actions, or did they keep you from reaching your goals?

In our example, you might quickly realize that the negative beliefs you expressed made it more difficult to stick with your workout plan. Perhaps you started skipping workouts more or put in less of an effort when you went to the gym.


Dispute your beliefs. Think about your beliefs from step 2 and look for examples that prove those beliefs wrong. Look for any example that challenges your assumptions.

For example, you might consider all of the times that you did successfully finish your workout. Or even other times that you have set a goal, worked towards it and finally reached it.


Consider how you feel now that you have challenged your beliefs. How did disputing your earlier beliefs make you feel?

After thinking of times you have worked hard toward your goal, you may be left feeling more energized and motivated. Now that you have seen that it isn't as hopeless as you previously believed, you may be more inspired to keep working on your goals.



Using Learned Optimism in Your Life

Let’s face it, life happens. There are days when life deals us bad breaks, ranging from small setbacks such as being stuck in traffic or missing out on a job promotion to life-changing and devastating losses losing a job or loved one.

While we’re all vulnerable to life’s unexpected setbacks, daily hassles, and losses, what we can do is choose how to best respond to these events.

Not All Responses Are Created Equal

According to psychologist Martin Seligman, experiencing bad things in life does not put us at a disadvantage and drive us towards depression. What truly makes or breaks us is how we explain these bad things.

his team’s research, individuals who use an “optimistic explanatory style” to describe why bad events happen experience more positive moods, better physical health, reduced stress, and enhanced performance compared to those who use a more “pessimistic explanatory style”.

Fortunately, Seligman believes that this “optimistic explanatory style” can be learned through heightened awareness and conscious practice, which is why he named this process “learned optimism”.

 Contrary to popular opinion, learned optimism is NOT about focusing only on the good things in our lives while dismissing the bad things.

Rather, learned optimism is acknowledging our struggles and explaining them in ways that boost self-control and promote self-change.

Specifically, how we manage the three P’s of learned optimism — permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization — determines how much perceived control we experience and how much we believe things can change for the better. It determines how resilient we become.


Permanence refers to how changeable and long-lasting negative events seem to be. Individuals who default to a pessimistic explanatory style view bad events as largely unchangeable with no end in sight.

An individual who fails to earn a promotion and thinks, “I’ll never get promoted; I always get passed over for good assignments” is exhibiting this pessimistic explanatory style.

Individuals who adopt a more optimistic explanatory style respond by viewing such setbacks as temporary and changeable: “I didn’t get this promotion. I’ve been passed over this time. Next time might be different.”

Permanence Self-Talk Tip

Replace limiting and fatalistic self-talk language such as “always” and “never” with temporary and changeable phrases such as “this time” and “next time”. The word “can’t” is also limiting because it makes struggle seem unchangeable and permanent. Replace “can’t” with “not yet”.

For example, an employee stumbles nervously through a presentation to the board of directors. Learned optimism calls for replacing “I can’t speak in public” with “I haven’t yet gotten good at speaking in public.” This more optimistic shift in self-talk frames struggles as skills that can improve over time rather than permanent limitations.


Pervasiveness refers to how much one bad event in one area of life leaks into and pollutes other unrelated areas. In other words, how contagious do we allow bad events to be? Does a speeding ticket on the way home result in a “ruined night” of arguing with the spouse, punishing the kids, kicking the dog, and blaming it all on the ticket?

This contagious spreading of one negative event into other areas characterizes the pessimistic explanatory style.

For example, a person who blows an important sales pitch catastrophizes that “I am just no good in this industry and don’t belong in this company.

” Individuals who exercise an optimistic explanatory style respond by quarantining the failed deal to only poor sales skills, “I may not be good at sales, but I have the marketing and accounting skills to make it in this career.”

Pervasiveness Self-Talk Tip

Replace contagious and catastrophizing self-talk words such as “everything” and “nothing” with quarantining self-talk that stresses “this thing”.

For example, a couple argues over how money is being spent. The catastrophizing response, “I manage to screw everything up… I can’t do anything right” can be replaced with “I screwed this month’s budget up pretty badly”, which quarantines the error to just a spending problem.


Personalization refers to how much an individual takes blame for bad events versus blaming external circumstances or poor execution. People who default to a pessimistic explanatory style see themselves as the sole reasons bad things happen. They shoulder inappropriate amounts of blame.

For instance, a supervisor fails to help a challenging employee resulting in that employee’s termination. The supervisor defaulting to a pessimistic explanatory style assumes complete blame and personalizes the bad result: “It’s all my fault. I ruined their life.”

The supervisor exercising an optimistic explanatory style identifies a substandard leadership skill or action as the culprit and recognizes that blame is shared: “I didn’t speak truth and engage in the hard conversations this staff member needed often enough, but he was formally reprimanded several times and still refused to change.”

Personalization Self-Talk Tip

Separate the performance from the performer by replacing “I” self-criticism with “My” self-criticism.

For instance, replace self-condemning phrases “I stink” or “I’m brutal” with skill- or performance-critical phrases such as “my report stank” or “my communication with my team member was brutal”.

Learned Optimism and Leadership

Numerous studies conducted by Seligman and his research team highlight that practicing a more optimistic explanatory style during times of struggle produces improved physical and emotional health, enhanced workplace performance, and heightened personal resilience. Learned optimism is not just an internal set of principles and self-talk techniques to help better explain bad events in our own lives. It also can be a powerful lens-changing leadership tool.

As team leaders in the workplace and as spouses and parents in the household, we can use learned optimism techniques to improve the overall well-being of those we serve:

  • As supervisors, we can reframe “Sorry boss, I always screw up this computer application” with encouragement and positive expectation – “You just haven’t figured out this application yet. Keep working at it.”
  • As parents, we can de-catastrophize “I’m terrible at school” with a more targeted appraisal: “Your grades are generally good. You just need to spend a bit more time on math.”
  • As a couple, we can reassure a spouse who states, “Why am I so stupid!?” by separating the performance from the performer. “You’re not at all a stupid person. You just made a poor choice. I’m sure an apology would clear up the misunderstanding.”

These three examples highlight the positive impact we can have as learned optimism lens changers for others.

More Information

To find out more about learned optimism and resilience training, visit


E-mail to talk with a Work/Life coordinator at DHS.


Learned Helplessness vs Learned Optimism: How To Train Your Brain To Be More Optimistic

Using Learned Optimism in Your Life

We have all heard about the pessimist who gives up easily and the optimist who perseveres in the face of failures. When faced with adversity, most people feel indecisive, restless, and anxious about the future.

It is what happens afterward that makes a difference – an optimist is briefly disturbed by the experience, but soon bounces back while a pessimist continues to be paralyzed by fear of failure.

An optimist storms this phase with the belief that it’s only a rough patch while the pessimist spirals into hopelessness with the belief in the permanent nature of their situation.

You can distinguish an optimist from a pessimist in the way they speak to themselves:

  • When struggling with something hard, an optimist would say “Wow, this is hard. I have to put in more effort!” while a pessimist would say “Wow, this is hard. I don’t have what it takes!” 
  • When reflecting back on their mistakes, a pessimist might say “I’m a loser, I can’t seem to get anything right” while an optimist might think “Why did I make this mistake. What does this mistake teach me? How can I do better next time.” 
  • When dealing with criticism, an optimist will go beyond words to the intent of the message and consider it as an opportunity to improve. They tend to think “How can I cut through the noise to find value in this feedback.” A pessimist might consider criticism as an attack on their identity. They tend to think “If the person is saying so, it must be right. This criticism is a sign that I will never succeed. I must give up now.”
  • While making a difficult decision, an optimist is more ly to think big and believe in their decision while a pessimist will continue to question their judgment instead of investing in making their idea successful. An optimist would say “I can make this idea successful” while a pessimist would say “This is going to fail.”

Research shows that optimism enhances the quality of life. Optimists are more successful at work, have better relationships, better health, and also enjoy a better quality of life.

Optimism not only helps you get past many difficulties and challenges that life throws your way by engaging in constructive actions instead of destructive behaviors but also helps you realize that not everything in life will go according to plan. Accepting just that is a big part of moving forward.

What does this mean? You are better prepared to handle adversity when it strikes instead of feeling knocked down and collapse into mental distress.    

Are people born as optimists or pessimists or can anyone learn to be resilient and use difficult experiences as a catalyst for growth?

“You will come across obstacles in life — fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure.

You will learn that this reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming — or possibly thriving because of — them. Where one person sees a crisis, another can see opportunity.

Where one is blinded by success, another sees reality with ruthless objectivity. Where one loses control of emotions, another can remain calm. Desperation, despair, fear, powerlessness—these reactions are functions of our perceptions.

You must realize: Nothing makes us feel this way; we choose to give in to such feelings,” says Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle Is the Way. 

The environment in which someone is raised sows the seeds of their behavior, the culture they adopt influences their thinking, and the people they choose to engage with shapes up their identity. Their personality and behavior isn’t set in stone, it’s actually quite malleable. Anyone can learn to be an optimist by changing their mindset and adopting the right practices.

How people learn to be helpless

Martin Seligman, father of modern positive psychology conducted experiments way back in 1964 that proved how people learn to feel helpless. Angela Duckworth describes this experiment on learned helplessness in her book Grit.

A caged dog receives electric shocks to its back paws. The shocks come randomly and without warning. If the dog does nothing, the shock lasts five seconds, but if the dog pushes its nose against a panel at the front of the cage, the shock ends early.

In a separate cage, another dog receives the same shocks at exactly the same intervals, but there’s no panel to push on. In other words, both dogs get the exact same dosage of shock at the exact same times, but only the first dog is in control of how long each shock lasts.

After sixty-four shocks, both dogs go back to their home cages, and new dogs are brought in for the same procedure. 

The next day, one by one, all the dogs are placed in a different cage called a shuttle box. In the middle, there’s a low wall, just high enough that the dogs can leap the barrier if they try.

A high-pitched tone plays, heralding an impending shock, which comes through the floor of the half of the shuttle box where the dog is standing. Nearly all the dogs who had control over the shocks the previous day learn to leap the barrier. They hear the tone and jump over the wall to safety.

In contrast, two-thirds of the dogs who had no control over the shocks the previous day just lie down whimpering, passively waiting for the punishment to stop. 

Human beings tend to behave the same way as published in this 1975 experiment by Donald Hiroto and Martin Seligman – 

People are randomly divided into three groups. People in the first group are exposed to an annoying loud noise that they can stop by pushing a button in front of them.

People in the second group hear the same noise but can’t turn it off, though they try hard and people in the third group, the control group, hear nothing at all. The following day, the subjects are faced with a brand-new situation that again involves noise.

To turn the noise off, all they have to do is move their hands about 12 inches. The people in the first and third groups figure this out and readily learn to avoid the noise. But those in the second group typically do nothing.

In phase one they failed, realized they had no control, and became passive. In phase two, expecting more failure, they don’t even try to escape. They have learned helplessness.

Strangely, however, about a third of the animals and people who experience inescapable shocks or noise never become helpless. What is it about them that makes this so? 

Martin’s study concluded that the answer is optimism. He showed that it is not suffering that leads to hopelessness, it’s the suffering you believe that you can’t control.

While pessimists feel helpless because they think the situation is beyond their control and refuse to do anything to change it, the optimists do everything in their power to take control of their situation.

Adversity doesn’t define them, it is one of the engines to fuel their growth. 

Want to turn around not only your beliefs and thoughts by adopting a more optimistic attitude, but also learn how to get back on track when you get off-course with challenges and setbacks? Check out Upgrade Your Mindset in which I provide practical strategies that are easy to understand and apply in real life along with printable worksheets to put your learning into practice.

Learned optimism is the path to building resilience  

While two-thirds of the dogs gave up, what was about these one-thirds of dogs who remained resilient despite their earlier trauma? Further research on the topic of resilience led Martin Seligman to study the “I quit response” to adversity in people. Out came Learned optimism. 

He found that “pessimists” attach permanent and pervasive explanations to bad events – permanence signifying that you can’t do much about them and pervasive in that one single event can influence a large part of your life. Permanent and pervasive explanations turn minor events into major setbacks and these people gravitate towards “I quit attitude.”  

On the other end, optimists use temporary and specific explanations to describe bad events – temporary explanations motivate them to put effort into fixing their problems and specificity keeps the focus of the problem on that particular event without generalizing it. Temporary and specific explanations drive clarity and encourage problem-solving. Such people learn to take control of their situation and don’t feel helpless.  

“Emotions and actions do not usually follow adversity directly. Rather they issue directly from your beliefs about adversity. This means that if you change your mental response to adversity, you can cope with setbacks much better,” says Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism. 

Pessimists can learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way using learned optimism.

Learned optimism is the idea in positive psychology that states that optimism can be learnt by challenging the negative self-talk.

It requires shifting from negative self-talk in the form of permanent and pervasive interpretations to positive self-talk using temporary and specific explanations. 

Let’s say you missed a deadline to deliver a project. Instead of saying “I’m a loser! I screw up everything!” challenge your thinking and choose more ly explanations “I did not manage my time well. I could have been less distracted.

I can procrastinate less and start earlier.” Think about the recent events in your life – fight with a coworker, losing a deal, missing a sales target, not getting promoted, receiving criticism for your work, losing a client, and so on.

What language did you use to describe these events?

Your beliefs shape your mindset. The way you talk to yourself plays a key role in how you lead your life and whether you succeed in your goals.

Shift from learned helplessness to learned optimism by catching yourself in negative thoughts and disputing them with more positive and hopeful thoughts. To do this – take note of your emotions and whenever you sense going down a negative path, reframe it using a more positive tone.

Use language that describes the event as temporary and specific, hence fixable as opposed to a permanent and pervasive explanation with a feeling of hopelessness. 

When you make mistakes, instead of saying “I can’t do anything right” choose to say “I made a mistake. I can fix it.” When you struggle through a task, instead of saying “I don’t have what it takes”, choose to say “I can figure this out.”

Saying is believing. If you keep telling yourself that you can’t do something, ultimately your brain will believe it. Don’t let your negative self-talk become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


People with learned Helplessness:

  • Feel helpless to take action with the belief that the situation is beyond their control.
  • Use negative self-talk in the form of permanent and pervasive explanations to describe bad events. 
  • When faced with adversity, they act as pessimists and give up too soon or spiral into hopelessness.
  • May suffer from depression, anxiety and stress. Excessive worrying can also impact their sleep and lead to poor health.

People with learned Optimism: 

  • Feel inspired to take action with the belief that they can change their situation.
  • Use positive self-talk in the form of temporary and specific explanations to describe bad events.
  • When faced with adversity, they act as optimists and keep pushing forward instead of ruminating about their past.
  • Enjoy more success at work, better health, relationships and overall quality of life.

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