Learned optimism can boost your physical well-being and natural healing. Attitude matters.
Multiple research studies link the psychological characteristics of optimism to health including:
- Fewer illness days and doctor visits
- Enhanced immune system (improved helper T-cell and suppressor T-cell ratio)
- Longer survival rate for women with breast cancer
- Longer survival rate after heart attack
Researcher, Christopher Peterson, PhD reports that optimism’s correlation to good health is about as much as can be expected given the numerous factors that affect health such as genetics, diet, exercise, income, social networks, and environmental hazards.
Researchers measure optimism versus pessimism through determining explanatory style—how people explain the adverse (bad) events they experience. This includes where they lay the blame for them; whether they perceive them as permanent or short-lived; and how pervasive they think they are.
Learned Optimism Explanatory Style
Pessimists tend to blame themselves for their misfortunes (internal explanation) whereas optimists tend to believe that external factors like fate or chance caused the misfortune (external explanation).
Pessimists tend to see the misfortune as long-lasting (stable) whereas optimists assume it’s temporary (unstable).
Pessimists tend to see their misfortunes as pervasive (global) whereas optimists see it as specific and not likely to affect other areas of their life.
The great news is you are not born with one or the other attitude.
An attitude is a settled way of thinking formed from experiences in life. We can challenge these settled ways of thinking and replace them with healthier ways.
You can learn OPTIMISM.
ABCDE for Learned Optimism
Leading spokesperson for learned optimism Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD provides a systematic method to learned optimism that consists of recognizing and then disputing pessimistic thoughts.
We know how to dispute thoughts. We dispute (correct) others when they accuse us wrongly. Yet, when we say the same type of accusing things to ourselves, we just accept them without question even though they are often not true.
These thoughts become so habitual we don’t even recognize we’re thinking them. They’re automatic.
Seligman says, “The key to disputing your own pessimistic thoughts is to first recognize them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life was to make you miserable.” The ABCDE model helps you do just that!
It’s learning to argue with your self effectively so your can rid your self of habitual and inaccurate ways of thinking that harm you. Here’s the step by step approach to learned optimism with examples (in italics).
A for Adversity
Adversity is the difficulties that happen in life. It’s a part of being alive.
Your attitude colors how you interpret adversities. Self-deprecating thoughts have an immediate effect on mood. They cause feelings of depression or unworthiness skewing the interpretation of events.
Learned optimism lightens the effect of adversities. It can change your view of the adversity to being difficult but also an opportunity. Thus one person’s perception of the same event maybe quite different from another’s.
A supervisor informs Mary and Jane that she wants to talk with them in the morning. For Mary this is an adverse event, not so for Jane.
B for Beliefs
Adverse events trigger beliefs. Beliefs are just beliefs. They may or may not be facts. Too often, they are just bad habits of thought learned from unpleasant past-experiences, like overly critical parents or a teacher.
Because they are automatic and seem to come from ourselves, we accept them without criticism.
Mary thinks, “Oh no! I knew this job wouldn’t last. I’m just no good.”
Jane thinks, “Great, an opportunity to get to know her better. I wonder what it’s about.”
C for Consequences
Beliefs have consequences. If the beliefs are not accurate, you’re suffering for no good reason. If they are accurate, you may need to come up with a plan for how to resolve the concern.
Mary’s sure she’s going to get fired. She keeps thinking about all her past failures and gets very little rest. She calls in sick for work the next morning.
Jane hasn’t thought much about it and sees her supervisor the next morning.
The supervisor has a project she needs done. It’s a fun project and she wanted to meet with each of them to see who would be best fitted for it. She assigns it to Jane.
D for Disputation
It’s essential to stand back and distance yourself from pessimistic thoughts and verify their accuracy. Here are four ways to dispute pessimistic reactions: evidence, alternatives, implications, and usefulness.
- Evidence – Be a detective
Uncover the evidence for the negative belief. Often, pessimistic reactions are over reactions. There may be a kernel of truth in them but they are often blown out of proportion to reality.Therapists call this thinking pattern catastrophizing. Mary was catastrophizing when she thought, “I knew this job wouldn’t last. I’m just no good.”
- Alternatives – Ask yourself if there’s a better way to think about this?—one that is less destructive
Very few things have just one cause. Pessimists have a habit of latching on to the worst imaginable cause rather than look at all the possible causes.Make a list of all the possible contributing causes of the negative belief.Mary could have saved herself a lot of grief if she had stopped to think of all the reasons her supervisor might want to see her instead of latching on to her automatic first thought.
- Implications (de-catasthrophizing) – It’s possible that the negative belief is true
But, even if is true, is it really as bad as you’re making it out to be?This technique is called de-catastrophizing. Ask yourself, “What are the implications?” Here you go back and search for the evidence.What if Mary did get fired. Does it mean she’s no good? Maybe the job really isn’t right for her.
- Usefulness – What are the consequences of the belief, even if it is true
If the belief is destructive for you why focus on it?An example might be the unfairness of treatment by a perfectionist parent. Dwelling on the unfairness and resulting resentment or anger does not change the previous experiences.It’s better to spend your energies on unlearning beliefs and thought patterns that developed as a consequence of those experiences.
E for Energization
Letting go of pessimistic thoughts frees up energy tied up in worrying and negative emotional states. As you use these techniques, you will notice that your mood improves and that you feel calmer.
Although it’s possible to use these techniques on your own, it’s usually easier and quicker if you work with a trusted friend. You can give them this article and or Dr. Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Share your concerns with them; have them challenge you to look at the brighter side of things. Ask them to help you challenge pessimistic beliefs, unrealistic expectations, and interpret circumstances more realistically.
If you have difficulty, see a therapist to help you get started. You may want to choose one specializing in cognitive therapy. Most importantly, get into action. During the next week or two (longer is even better) note adverse events as they come along. Tune in to what you are saying to yourself. Actively dispute your negative beliefs. “Beat them into the ground.”
Keep a journal of your progress noting the ABCDE method to learned optimism:
You can increase you chances of success by making positive changes in your life style: seek out the company of more optimistic people, start a simple exercise program like walking, and be flexible. Adjust these suggestions to fit you.
Expect setbacks. Be patient, you’ve spent a life time developing your present attitude. Give your self some time to develop learned optimism. It’s a great investment— attitude matters!
Sources and Resources
Christopher Peterson and Lisa M. Bossio, “Healthy Attitudes: Optimism. Hope, and Control,” in Daniel Goleman and Joel Gurin eds., Mind Body Medicine: How to Use Your Mind for Better Health (New York: Consumer Reports Books, 1993).
Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (New York: The Free Press 2002).