Optimism, and its importance in mental health and wellbeing, is a concept that has boomed in psychological research over the last 20 years. It has been integral in the rise of positive psychology and championed by researchers such as Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism, and Tali Sharot in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brainas a life-changing tool that people can learn. As a result, it has become increasingly popular in spheres of work performance, mental health, wellbeing and psychology.
Historically viewed by scientists as a negative trait, optimism is often deeply misunderstood and underused, meaning that people aren’t able to harness this simple device effectively. However, optimism can actually improve your mental and physical health, work performance, and quality of life. In some studies, optimism has even been linked to helping you live longer. Therefore, this month we are focusing on how and why learning to be more optimistic can benefit you, potentially creating life-changing results.
Optimism was historically misunderstood as a form of denial or delusional thinking, associated with simple, naïve, and unrealistic people. As a result, optimism was dismissed as a concept worth exploring in psychology. However, this began to change as studies took place which were able to measure optimism levels in individuals and see the linked benefits.
This increased interest led to the emergence of psychological theories of the nature and development of optimism. Carver and Scheier developed a theory where they argued that optimism is a disposition, a trait that people naturally either have or don’t have in their personality.
However, in the 70s and 80s, Martin Seligman published his now famous research on learned helplessness and learned optimism where he argues that optimism can be learned. This sparked the rise of Positive Psychology and a mass of research exploring the benefits and nature of learned optimism.
Optimism is a complex concept, but is generally defined as:
Seligman argues that people either have an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style. An explanatory style is how people explain events that happen to them, or adversity in their life. These explanatory styles can develop due to genetic, social, cultural factors and particularly from life events.
To Seligman, more pessimistic people explain bad events in the following ways, thinking that the causes are:
On the other hand, more optimistic people explain bad events in different ways, thinking that the causes are:
These can be flipped in good situations, which optimists generally see as permanent, pervasive and personal and pessimists see as temporary, specific and externally caused.
Segerstrom (2006) claims that 80% of people are optimists. We can become this way via social learning, role modelling behaviours, through genetics, or through cultural influences, mental health. Optimists often feel empowered, seeing adversity as a challenge they can readily conquer and grow from.
However, many of us can be classified as pessimists which can lead to a learned helplessness, and an attitude of apathy, where people believe they have no control over what happens in their life so feel it is pointless to try. This can lead to low self-confidence, self-blaming and low self-esteem.
Stanford University has created The Learned Optimism test which is adapted from Dr. Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism. This test is designed to see if you have a pessimistic or optimistic explanatory style.
Click here to take test and find out if you are a pessimist or optimist
Research demonstrates that optimism can be learned. Seligman argued that techniques from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy developed to conquer depression are particularly effective at boosting optimism. These can be effective even for people who are generally optimistic (more information on how to be more optimistic section later in this article).
There are 5 main benefits that scientific research has linked to higher levels of optimism.
There are many ways you can try to be more optimistic. Seligman adapts Albert Ellis’ ABC’s from Rational- Emotive Behavioural Therapy and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive-Behavioural techniques, creating a 5-step system to boost optimism, ABCDE. This system focuses on identifying the underlying thoughts and beliefs that influence behaviour in adversity, encouraging a different response to these thoughts and beliefs to change behaviour.
|Adversity||The event that causes stress|
|Belief||How the person interprets the event|
|Consequence||The resulting action from the belief caused by the adversity|
|Disputation||Challenge pessimistic thoughts from A-C by looking at evidence disputing this – the effort we expend to argue or dispute the belief|
|Energising||Create an optimistic thought to counteract, this will lead to more energy – the outcome that emerges from trying to challenge our beliefs|
Write down or talk through the following 5 steps to help boost your optimism levels. You can use this approach to learn more about your responses to difficult and positive situations. This can be incredibly difficult to do and may need to be repeated multiple times. If you want some support with negative thoughts, it can be helpful to connect to a counsellor or psychologist through your EAP.
|Adversity||Think about an adversity you recently faced|
e.g. unsuccessful promotion application
|Belief||What thoughts ran through your mind when you think about this adversity, did you believe them?|
e.g. I’m a terrible person, I will always fail
|Consequence||What consequences happened as a result of responding to or believing these thoughts?|
e.g. drinking alcohol to avoid the stress
|Disputation||Go back to stage B. Look at these beliefs and ask yourself – are these helpful to who you want to be? Are there other times you have felt like a good person or have succeeded?|
e.g. received positive feedback at annual review
|Energising||Is there a more helpful thought or optimistic thought that can help you when these beliefs or thoughts arise again?|
e.g. I am enough, I try my best as an employee and usually do a great job.
Optimism is a powerful mental attitude that heavily influences your physical and mental wellbeing as well as your work performance and quality of life. Excitingly, research shows that optimism can be learned and that anyone can reap the benefits. Dr. Martin Seligman’s ABCDE 5-step model of learning optimism is a quick and easy tool to help boost optimism. So why not try to be a little more optimistic, a little can prove to go a long way.
Acacia Connection is excited to launch our new monthly webinar series, where you can continue the conversation around our monthly topic online. These sessions are brought to you by our specialised training provider, The Workshop Lab, and are offered to all Acacia Connection clients and their employees free of charge.
April’s Webinar: Optimistic Workplaces
Join our 45-60 minute webinar where we continue the conversation about optimism in the workplace. During the session we we talk more about how to build a ‘realistically optimistic’ workplace, free from the negativity trap. During this micro- learning session, we will also share some valuable communication tips for dealing with the Negative Nellys & Doomsday Dons of the workplace.
Date: Friday, 5th April 2019
Time: QLD: 11am; SA: 11:30am; NSW & VIC: 12 noon; NT: 10:30am.
P: 1300 364 273 | Text or Live Chat: 0401 337 711 | W: acaciaconnection.com