T Nation

Learned Optimism


I'm having trouble with this concept. It seems to contradict logic. How can you be "happy" about a situation that's objectively bad? Is learned optimism really a euphemism for denial?


It's just looking at the bright side of things (ie. "it could have been worse"). Pessimism is just a bad idea all around, since it just doesn't get you anywhere, and makes you a moping idiot.


I think this is a great thread!

I think it is sooo much easier to get upset and stay there.
It is work to dig out of a nasty funk!!


If you're a pessimist, you're always going to be pleasently suprised when things go well. It is a fun exercise though to think of the bright side of every terrible situation. eg- A dead body laying on your lawn- at least your grass will get fertalized. Sorry I couldn't think of a funny one off the top of my head.


I think it's being able to realize while you can't always control a bad situation, you can control your emotions. It's just realizing what you do and do not have control over.


Martin Seligman wrote a book about the subject. I bought it a while ago, but haven't read it yet.

Here's a brief synopsis of the book from amazon.com:

"Martin Seligman, a renowned psychologist and clinical researcher, has been studying optimists and pessimists for 25 years. Pessimists believe that bad events are their fault, will last a long time, and undermine everything. They feel helpless and may sink into depression, which is epidemic today, especially among youths. Optimists, on the other hand, believe that defeat is a temporary setback or a challenge--it doesn't knock them down. "Pessimism is escapable," asserts Seligman, by learning a new set of cognitive skills that will enable you to take charge, resist depression, and make yourself feel better and accomplish more.
About two-thirds of this book is a psychological discussion of pessimism, optimism, learned helplessness (giving up because you feel unable to change things), explanatory style (how you habitually explain to yourself why events happen), and depression, and how these affect success, health, and quality of life. Seligman supports his points with animal research and human cases. He includes tests for you and your child--whose achievement may be related more to his or her level of optimism/pessimism than ability. The final chapters teach the skills of changing from pessimism to optimism, with worksheet pages to guide you and your child."


You have a faulty premise: there's no such thing as "objectively bad". "Bad" is a value judgement, so by definition it can't be objective.


I think classifying someone as either an optomist or pessimist is too narrow a description either way. I don't believe being firmly set at either end is a very healthy way to live. Perhaps being more of a positive realist, might be a better way of dealing with hurdles. Being optomistic without dealing with the issues at hand can be as destructive as pessimism. Just my $.02


AnAceUpMySleeve has it right.

There is a gap between every event and your reaction to that event. You (often) can't control the event itself, but you can control how you react to the event. Once you learn this, life becomes much easier to deal with.


The implication from Bandito's post is that optimists are happy while pessimists actually take responsibility for themselves and their actions. As magnus pointed out, this shouldn't be viewed as a two-value issue.

This is all really just semantic masturbation when it comes down to it though.


I think I'm a negative realist. That seems worse to me than being a pessimist. The pessimist says "I suck." The negative realist says "I suck and I'll prove it to you."