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Learned Optimism: Can You Become an Optimistic Person?

According to the research of Martin Seligman, author of “Learned Optimism,” the answer is, yes. However, if you are a pessimist, you probably don’t believe it.

If you should decide to read the book, there a test to assess whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. You might be surprised by the results as the definition of both mindsets is much more scientific than the “glass is half-empty or half-full” test. The difference between either trait boils down to a person’s perception of the events in their life being permanent or temporary.

Dr. Seligman writes:

“If you think about bad things in always’s and never’s and abiding traits, you have a permanent, pessimistic style. If you think in sometime’s and lately’s, if you use qualifiers and blame bad events on transient conditions, you have an optimistic style.”

Conversely, an optimist will tell themselves that when something good is happening to them, it’s permanent. Pessimists think that the good times are just a passing phase.

Being optimistic is tied to several benefits which include good health, a fulfilling career, and long-lasting, mutually beneficial, personal relationships. However, pessimism can have a utility, and I am not just saying that to sound like an optimist. The research says that pessimism has a constructive role in our lives; the important takeaway is the balance between both mindsets.

“The genius of evolution lies in the dynamic tension between optimism and pessimism continually correcting each other. As we rise and fall daily with the circadian cycle, that tension permits both to venture and to retrench – without danger, for as we move toward an extreme, the tension pulls us back. In a sense, it is this perpetual fluctuation that permits human beings to accomplish so much.”

The optimistic lifestyle allows someone to deal with setbacks better than those who tend to look at adverse events as permanent. It’s a matter of resilience, rather than sinking into a depressed mindset. Either way of thinking has downstream consequences, affecting decisions and actions taken to respond to those life events that happen to all people, regardless of their perception of what is happening to them. Learning to become an optimist requires that someone develop a set of skills that help them talk to themselves with encouragement when something negative befalls them.

The author warns that there are times that optimism should be employed and other times to avoid it. Being overly optimistic and not pragmatic about, for instance, planning for a risky future or trying to be sympathetic to others, can leave someone seemingly delusional and out of touch.

If you want to find out if you are an optimist or a pessimist, an investigation into your thinking could help you track how things are progressing with your career. Are you a good leader? Are you a good teammate? Are things going according to your career plan? If the answer is yes, there is still an opportunity to examine if your active mindset has anything to do with that. Finding consistency in thought and approach could create reproducible effects and benefit both yourself and those around you.

Or, if things aren’t going well right now, then maybe it’s all your fault and things will never get better and no one likes you because you’re such a pessimist ; ) 

“Learned Optimism,” by Martin Seligman Ph.D. is a US national bestseller and available from Vintage Books

Tom DiGati, Client Success



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