I learned about Martin Seligman’s book while reading one of the most life-changing books, Grit by Angela Duckworth. In her book about persistence, she counts optimism as one of the drivers of persistence and borrows her conclusions from Seligman’s research.
I decided to write this summary to show how learned optimism can be obtained and how it is a factor in our mental health.
Father of positive psychology
This is one of the most important books in psychology. This book shows why being optimistic can make you happier, healthier, and even more successful while pessimism can dim the light in your life. Seligman founded positive psychology and has researched for decades to show how some people navigate through life’s challenges easier than others. The secret lies in their attitude.
Optimism vs Pessimism
In this book, he introduces two ways of looking at life. Optimism and pessimism. The idea behind learned optimism is something Seligman defined as positive psychology. This is the type of psychology that focuses on individual and society wellbeing and intends to improve the quality of life.
Positive psychology believes in the abilities of the patient, does not blame them for the occurrences that have happened in their lives, but shows them that they have the power to create the life they want.
A positive mindset
The teachings of positive psychology are similar to the teachings of Mindset by Carol Dweck.
“I don’t mind being wrong, and I don’t mind changing my mind”-Martin Seligman.
These people manage to do so because they are optimists.
Martin Seligman attempts (and succeeds) in explaining one of the main causes of depression. Seligman says that learned helplessness is one of the main reasons we get depressed. We tend to become so helpless and think that things are beyond our control and there is nothing we can do about it. He says that just as we can learn to be helpless, we can learn to be optimistic as well.
The dog experiment
Seligman conducted an experiment whereby he locked dogs in a cage and administered electric shocks to the dogs. These cages were locked so the dogs had nowhere to go. In another experiment, the dogs were given the same treatment but their cages were opened.
When given shock treatments, dogs in open cages could get out when they felt the jolt. However, dogs in closed cages stayed and just bore through the pain whimpering until the pain stopped. In the case of the dogs in the closed cages, even when the doors were opened, the dogs just stayed in the cage, endured the pain brought by the electric shocks until the pain stopped.
The dogs that were used to not having the choice to leave then failing to leave when the doors were opened show us what learned helplessness is. One can learn helplessness. When you are continually in situations you cannot help, you get used to being helpless that you don’t notice when a door opens. You condition your mind that there is no way out of your troubles and you can only sit them through until they run their course.
Learned helplessness vs learned optimism
Learned helplessness is one of the major causes of depression. Many that struggle with depression see that there is no way out of their misery. They give up and unfortunately, to some, they choose to end their lives because they see no other way out.
In Learned Optimism, Seligman shows that just as one can learn helplessness, one can also learn optimism. You can learn to be positive, optimistic and improve your attitude. By being optimistic, we understand that our situation is not permanent and it does not define our lives.
Main lessons from Learned Optimism
You separate yourself from the situation
When you screw up, don’t dwell on how terrible you are and that you always screw up. Pick a growth mindset instead and understand that just because something happened it does not become who you are.
If you screw up, say ‘I screwed up this time. Next time I will try to be better”. When you have acquired learned helplessness, you are likely to conclude “I always screw up. I am not good at all” and this will only make you feel worse.
You view problems as temporary, not permanent
With learned optimism, you can learn to view challenges and problems as temporary, not permanent. Optimistic people understand that no situations are permanent and they will end. They also understand that there are things within their control and those not within their control.
This is similar to what is discussed in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. When something is within your control, then you become proactive and work on solving it and getting yourself out of the situation.
On the other hand, when something is not within your control, you let it play out and trust that it will pass. If you stress about it, you are not helping the situation but simply stressing yourself.
I use a mantra: “This too shall pass” and it helps me go through tough times.
Pessimism is like having a fixed mindset, optimism is like having a growth mindset
I have discussed having a fixed and a growth mindset numerous times. According to Seligman, pessimist people view all painful events as permanent and personal.
They use words such as “I can’t do this” “I can never be good at this” “I always fail at this”. This is having a fixed mindset and thinking that all situations are permanent and there is not much you can do about it.
However, optimists have a growth mindset. They don’t solely base their strengths and success on their abilities. They are open to learning and don’t perceive hurdles as the end.
They take challenges as a learning experience and are open to learning so that they can perform better in the future. They are not embarrassed at the possibility of failure.
Luckily, optimism can be learned and in this book, Seligman offers practical exercises that can help you diagnose if you are a pessimist or an optimist. With this information, he uses more exercises to help you change your attitude from pessimism to optimism.
You can change how you react to adversity in your life to a way that adversity does not break you. Simply said, learned optimism helps you develop resilience. It also helps you dispute beliefs that hold you back, unlearn beliefs and behaviors and change your mindset.