I’ve written before that one of my favorite nonfiction subjects to read is psychology–I’m fascinated by how the mind works (on the level of thoughts, not so much neurons). I recently read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and it was one of the most intriguing I’ve read to date.
Seligman details extensive studies he undertook and the conclusions drawn from them to define and explain pessimism, optimism and depression. In brief, he found that learned helplessness (believing that whatever you do doesn’t change the outcome) is a key component of depression, and that explanatory style (how you explain events, especially negative ones) influences whether learned helplessness becomes prolonged and intense. Optimists and pessimists explain their lives and events very differently, but it’s possible to learn optimism by challenging your explanations of events and consciously changing your thought processes.
This is an old book (about 30 years old) but as far as I can tell, Seligman is/was the foremost expert on the heavily related topics of learned helplessness and optimism/pessimism. He’s the one that the later books cite, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him referenced in other things I’ve read. I’d like to read something more recent to see if there’s been any updates in thought, especially regarding the causes of depression.
Seligman’s premise seemed to hold together incredibly well, though, and be heavily supported. I love it when I find a psychology book that defines things that are new, but that feels familiar because it makes sense. This was all really fascinating. I liked the way he broke down what it means to be an optimist and a pessimist, and defined how you can distinguish one from the other. It gave me a lot of insight into how my own mind works, and I feel like it gave me new understanding of people around me too.
I’ve been bringing this book up to people I know, and that’s been so interesting too, to see how people define themselves. Some are very sure of what they are, others much less so. I have one friend who is so optimistic, I couldn’t convince her that my husband is a pessimist. 🙂
The book starts with a few chapters detailing Seligman’s initial studies and expanding on his theories. The midsection goes into additional experiments, mostly seeing if he can predict success in different circumstances based on optimism/pessimism (spoiler: he can). This section bogged down a little, because it became predictable. The last section, however, gets into how to change explanatory style, and again became very engaging.
If there’s one piece that seems to be missing, Seligman doesn’t address the tendency of optimists or pessimists to talk about positive or negative things. I think his work supports the idea that optimists will dwell on the good and pessimists on the bad, but the actual discussion was pretty absent. I’d like to see that explored more–so I guess I know a focus to look for if I’m looking for more recent writing!
One thought on “Book Review: Learned Optimism”
It sounds like he is/was an early proponent of cognitive behavioral therapy, to change your thoughts or negative habits through learned behavior instead of just “talk therapy.” It’s nice to know there’s a distinguished psychologist out there who believes you can change your attitude from pessimism to optimism. They seem more like character traits to me.