Optimism is a “gift that keeps on giving.” Not surprisingly, research has shown that optimistic people tend to be more well-adjusted, handle pressure better, tend to perform better, have less health issues, etc. We all know people like this, individuals who always see the opportunity, the up side of a situation, the glass as half full. I once heard a comedian say, “I don’t care if the glass is half empty or half full. I just want to know who is drinking it, and do I have to pay for all of it?!”
With all of the positives coming from an optimistic approach to life, the question remains: Can anyone, even those who are not predisposed to “look on the sunny side” become more optimistic?
According to Dr. Martin Seligman, the answer is a resounding “YES!” He started with early behavioral research that demonstrated the existence of “learned helplessness” – an attitude of giving up, taking no action out of the belief that nothing would improve anyway, so why bother? Rank pessimism is the result. Admittedly, some levels of pessimism can be useful (thinking through “worse case scenarios,” for example), but left unchecked it becomes a recipe for disaster.
Seligman shares his findings and his recommendations for reworking the individual’s “explanatory style” in his excellent book Learned Optimism. As helplessness can be learned (by and large, children often start out naturally optimistic and hopeful), so we can all “learn” optimism. His prescription for this change in approach can be addressed through a process characterized by the letters A-B-C-D-E:
- Identify the ADVERSE event or situation.
- Understand what your initial BELIEFS are about the event.
- Lay out the CONSEQUENCES of taking direct action as a result of these beliefs.
- DISPUTE these beliefs to challenge their accuracy. Or, DISTRACT yourself from focusing intently on these natural responses to avoid a “knee-jerk” response.
- ENERGIZE yourself to take positive action based on your new interpretation of the situation.
Over the course of time practicing these techniques, this Disputation and Energization towards a more positive response can become more rapid and effective, even becoming your “default” response.
At this point, Congratulations! You’ve LEARNED OPTIMISM!