Learned Optimism

Optimists do better. In studies of religion, politics, sports, and insurance salesmen, people with the most optimistic attitudes come out on top.

Yet, pessimists can learn optimism. Psychologist Seligman discovered this when he taught a group of laboratory dogs to act helpless in the face of escapable electric shocks. These dogs, he reasoned, behave just like people who are depressed. He then retrained the dogs to avoid the shocks, thus proving that they can learn that their actions would lead to a positive outcome. Once the dogs learned this optimistic point of view, they never forgot it.

Seligman espouses the cognitive view of psychology, according to which people feel the way they think. If people believe that things will turn out badly, they will feel depressed and be less inclined to take positive action. Seligman asserts that people can change their negative beliefs, not to pollyannaish positive statements but to “non-negative” beliefs that are realistic and that encourage action.

Seligman admits that the one advantage of a pessimistic point of view is that it is usually more accurate. Realistic pessimism is practical for evaluating risks with large consequences. For life’s less serious endeavors, however, optimism is the outlook of choice.

Sometimes, it seems like Seligman is trying too hard to prove the advantages of optimism. The first two-thirds of his book consists of stories testifying to the payoff of an optimistic attitude. Seligman seems to label depressives as willful failures, as if they consciously choose their painful and often biologically based condition.

Still, there are readers who can learn positive thinking from a book. For them, LEARNED OPTIMISM is an ideal text.