How To Be An Optimist
A psychological model for reducing pessimism, increasing optimism for the future and developing meaning and purpose in one's life.
I have always been interested in having a go, taking a punt on an idea in spite of the potential for failure. It's both a strength and a weakness of mine.
This doesn't mean that I'm reckless. On the contrary, I think caring for oneself and others is obviously a good idea no matter what the endeavour. Nevertheless, I believe in taking chances. And on sober analysis, moving on an idea or not seems to be about finding a balance between perceptions of success and failure–of optimism and pessimism.
What Optimism & Pessimism Are Not
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, optimism and pessimism are not fixed personality traits. We’re not born pessimists or optimists. These apparent states shift and change, are strong or weak depending on the situation, and we build them in ourselves through life experience. You could say that we have a propensity for one or the other depending on a host of influencing factors. And most importantly, these concepts of ourselves can change through intervention.
In all human endeavours, we’ve got to be willing to push beyond our perceived limits, and that usually means accepting that not achieving the desired result is probable. Perhaps it’s that which makes success so sweet when it comes.
Now that I’m only a kick in the arse away from fifty, and I have the time to take a step back, it seems that learning how to be an optimist while in the middle of a challenge is what’s most important. Martin Seligman’s work in this respect has afforded me some further perspective.
Seligman on Optimism & Pessimism
Although Seligman is largely known for his work on positive psychology, he arrived there through research on failure and helplessness1. Behaviourist models of human motivation primarily drove psychological research in the US during the 1960s and it was where Seligman began. He was part of a research team involved in controversial electric shock experiments on dogs, rats, mice, and even cockroaches that would later develop the concept of “learned helplessness.”2 In these experiments, researchers found that the animals would eventually learn to accept their mistreatment, making no attempt to escape.
They also discovered, albeit through less severe means, that human beings do the same thing under similarly stressful conditions. In one particular experiment, Seligman and his colleague, Donald Hiroto3, randomly assigned research subjects to three groups. Upon failure in a task, researchers exposed the first group to a loud noise that they could stop at will by pushing a button. They exposed the second group to the same noise but they had no control over it. The third was the control group and heard no noise at all.
The following day, they presented each group with a new situation, again involving loud noise. To turn the noise off, all each group needed to do was move their hands about 30 centimetres to press the stop button. The people in the first and third groups figured this out and easily learned to avoid the noise. However, those in the second group typically did nothing. On the first day’s trial, this group had realised they had no control over the noise and became passive. On the second day’s trial, expecting more failure, they didn’t even attempt to escape.
They had learned to be helpless.
What Has Self-esteem Got To Do With It?
From their experiments, Seligman found that about 33% of animals and people who experience inescapable shocks or noise never develop helplessness. As a clinical psychologist, Seligman was accustomed to exploring what was wrong with people and then endeavoured to fix it, but in this case, he wondered what it was about this resilient group. A meeting with his literary agent, Richard Pine, changed the researcher’s focus. Pine said to him, “Martin, your work is not about pessimism, it’s about optimism.” That was 1988, and it proved to be a pivotal moment that led to answers to this burning question.
In his book Learned Optimism4, Seligman suggests that a misunderstanding of psychological processes has led to a belief that lack of self-esteem is at the core of anxiety and depression. Promoting self-esteem as a “vaccine” against social ills, he suggests, is highly misinformed. Although Learned Optimism was first published in 1990, this perhaps remains true today. Seligman says that self-esteem is not an end in itself, but a measure of the state of play. Self-esteem is a product of, not a prerequisite to, good results and positive outcomes.
What Research Tells Us About The Role of Self-esteem
Learned optimism research suggests that when we teach unwarranted self-esteem–when we afford praise where it is undeserved–problems are not far behind. When expectations cannot meet results, people can display anger, aggression, and even violence. He insists that boosting self-esteem without foundation is not the answer. Instead, and this aligns with Carol Dweck’s Self Theories of Motivation5, coping mechanisms must be at the heart of learning. Taking on challenges one at a time, challenges that are just about achievable, teach us to grow beyond ourselves. This is where learning to be an optimist comes into play.
“We discovered that people who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. (“It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.”) That suggested how we might immunise people against learned helplessness, against depression and anxiety, and against giving up after failure by teaching them to think like optimists.”
Learning to be an optimist is not a denial of our conditions. It’s not, when we’re faced with challenge and difficulty, pretending that the challenge doesn’t exist. Instead, it is an acceptance of conditions and resolving within oneself to find an answer. Too many of us today believe that positive thinking can get us out of difficulty and solve our problems, but this alone can merely serve to prolong conditions through non-acceptance. In other words, getting stuck in, getting our hands dirty, and working on the solution in the midst of the problem is the only thing that works.
“If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”
Carol S. Dweck
The PERMA Model of Wellbeing
As president of the APA, Martin Seligman and colleagues launched their new field of research that focused on wellbeing. They recognised that although relieving suffering was a worthwhile pursuit, it is not the same as a pursuit focused on enhancing wellbeing. The researchers understood that human strengths, performance excellence, and flourishing are just as authentic and worthy of investigation as human distress.
Seligman and colleagues gave birth to the field of Positive Psychology. They aimed the rigours of scientific research toward the exploration of factors that enable individuals and communities to flourish. Their research was based on the basic question; what is human flourishing and what factors enable it?
They found that each of us extracts happiness, contentment, enjoyment, etc. to varying degrees from each of the five pillars of wellbeing; Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, & Accomplishment. The PERMA Model is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. That is to say, it doesn’t dictate choices or values to people, but describes the factors enabling flourishing to occur in people’s lives.
Here is a brief outline of Seligman’s PERMA model. Remember, these components are mutually causative and overlapping in effect. They are not discrete “things” you can make happen. They come about of their own accord as you engage in meaningful work with an accepting and joyful approach. In other words, get into it, whatever it is, for the sake of it and watch what happens.
P — Positive Emotion
The PERMA Model says that the route to wellbeing is hedonic. This does not mean that indulging in alcohol or drugs or other means of distraction from what’s happening is good. Rather, the PERMA Model says that self-induced positive emotion, or that derived from enjoyable activities, feeds into positive states.
Within personal limits, each of us can increase positive emotion. In considering the past, for example, we can generate positive emotions through gratitude and forgiveness. We can develop our present moment positive emotion by paying attention to right-now positive aspects. By bringing our minds to hope and optimism for the future, we can generate positive emotions as well.
A genuine positive mindset view can help us in our personal relationships, our performance at work, and inspire those around us to be more creative and innovative. There is a constant flow of positives and negatives in life. Focusing on negatives increases our chances of developing anxiety and depression. Focusing on the positives while appreciating apparent negatives tends to take our everyday experiences to a better place.
How to Build Positive Emotion:
I have found that denial of difficulty and challenge rarely, if ever, helps take me to a more positive place. Even though it’s difficult to accept defeat, for me it has proven the first step in rebuilding. When we accept conditions as they are, it gives us a starting point for greater wellbeing and positivity in our lives.
E — Engagement
Work, sport, business, hobbies, even washing dishes or peeling spuds have the potential to engage us like nothing else. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow6, says that this produces an experience that is so gratifying that we are willing to do it for its own sake. Even if we take away the prospect of payment or reward, we would still engage in the activity. The reward of the Flow experience is enough in and of itself.
Flow Theory7 says that when we have sufficiently developed skills for the task, are in the pursuit of a clear and definite goal, and have access to immediate feedback, there exists an opportunity for Flow. In these activities, we become fully immersed in the moment. Self-consciousness disappears, and our perception of time becomes distorted or even stops.
We can experience Flow in a deep conversation, compiling a research paper, writing a book, skydiving, playing the guitar, or gardening. The world is our playground, we simply need to find that thing that engages us like nothing else and throw ourselves into it.
How to Become Engaged:
Start by following your curiosity and interest—this is the spark you need to light the fire of engagement. If you are not at least curious, nothing happens. You’ve got to get out there and try something. Start with the people you admire—musicians, artists, writers—read and listen to their stuff and allow them to inspire you. It doesn’t matter if you eventually drop that thing, there’s always something else waiting for you to find it.
R — Relationships
Personal relationships and social interactions are crucially important in the creation of a meaningful life. We are socially developed animals, whose survival is dependant on the bond we create with others. Therefore, our basic need for meaningful relationships is at the core of wellbeing.
Our family and social connections give life purpose and meaning and help develop critical psychological skills such as resilience. Relationships help us navigate the bad times and amplify the good. Research has shown that performing acts of kindness for others less well off than us produces an increase in wellbeing and a sense of belonging. These times are difficult for everyone, therefore, it’s more important now than ever for us to reach out and strengthen bonds with others.
How to Build Relationships:
Walk in the park with a friend, call a family member you haven’t spoken to in a while, or call to a neighbour’s door. Send a message, record a video, join an online forum of people with similar creative interests, volunteer, join a club. Do whatever is necessary to strengthen your bonds with other human beings.
M — Meaning
Why am I here? Why do I even bother? What’s the point of life?
People who are engaged and fulfilled tend not to ponder these questions. It is when we find ourselves at low points in our lives, directionless and devoid of purpose, that we question our existence. Years chasing success for its own sake, pursuing material and financial gain, for example, can give rise to the lack of meaning in one’s life. I’ve been there and can testify to that.
Having a reason to get out of bed in the morning, engaging in work or sport that consumes our interest is, therefore, critical to mental and physical wellbeing. A sense of belonging, of being a part of something bigger like a social movement for environmental change, or a community group that helps the aged, these things provide meaning and purpose to our lives.
How to Find Meaning:
It’s not only bigger movements of mind that can afford meaning in life. Try gardening or tending to a vegetable plot. How about painting, pottery, or writing? These things are ongoing solo creative projects and provide immense pleasure and meaning for many people even extending beyond the individual.
A — Accomplishment
When I started working towards my undergraduate degree, completion seemed a long way off. But now, as I reflect on the work done and the grades achieved, there is a particular sense of accomplishment. It feels good. The PERMA Model of Wellbeing says that happiness exists for people who pursue achievement, competence, and mastery for the sake of it.
We pursue accomplishment even when it is temporarily unenjoyable. With commitment and dedication, the realisation of the goal can lead to positive emotion, meaning and satisfaction. But this only occurs on reflection. The real enjoyment is in the work right here and now. In truth, this is where the accomplishment lies. The accomplishment is being fully engaged in the work — right now, immersed, focused, dedicated.
How to Find Accomplishment:
Accomplishment is linked to all the above — it comes about from following your curiosity, developing meaning through the work itself, and engaging with people of similar interests. Don’t concern yourself with accomplishment, it will come of its own accord. Instead, focus on the work.
A Final Word on How To Be An Optimist
Happiness is directly related to optimism for the future and that feeling is a right-now experience. However, it is difficult to define, and some researchers steer away from it as an official term. As such, psychologists refer to “wellbeing” and similar terms. However, Peter Warr at The University of Sheffield in the UK says that happiness and unhappiness are central to our existence8. It has real meaning for people, so it’s relevant to talk about it directly. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of Wellbeing is a possible framework for happiness, but we must understand that overall wellbeing is dependent on so much more than simply being happy.
Engagement in challenging tasks is enjoyable even though we may feel stretched and tested. Reaching the end, reflecting on what we have done to get there, and having achieved the goal or not, can be an enjoyable experience. Therefore, happiness is more than just a smiley face and an endorphin filled brain.
As the old saying goes, “smooth waters never a good sailor made”. We’ve got to take a punt on ourselves and be brave enough to accept failure if it comes. Otherwise, life becomes predictable, boring, and monotonous. A happy and fulfilling life is so much more than the wins, so learning to be optimistic is an important psychological skill. But I’d go one further and suggest that we work towards becoming realist-optimists; that is to say, we stay present with positive intentions and don’t allow ourselves to get carried away.
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Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster
Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: critique and reformulation. Journal of abnormal psychology, 87(1), 49
Hiroto, D. S., & Seligman, M. E. (1975). Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of personality and social psychology, 31(2), 311
Seligman, M. E. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage
Dweck, C. S., & Master, A. (2009). Self-theories and motivation. Handbook of motivation at school, 123
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (2014). Flow. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 227–238). Springer, Dordrecht.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. Handbook of positive psychology, 195-206
Warr, P. (2019). The psychology of happiness (1st ed.). London: Routledge