Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, is one of 30 books written by Dr Martin Seligman. Among his accomplishments, Seligman is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology, Director of the Positive Psychology Centre and Director of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.[1]

Dr Seligman's books are translated into more than 50 languages and include: The Hope Circuit (Public Affairs, 2018), Flourish (Free Press, 2011), Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2002), What You Can Change & What You Can't (Knopf, 1993), The Optimistic Child (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), Helplessness (Freeman, 1975, 1993) and Abnormal Psychology (Norton, 1982, 1988, 1995, with David Rosenhan).

Dr Seligman is a leading practitioner in the fields of positive psychology, resilience, learned helplessness, depression, optimism and pessimism. He is also an authority on interventions that prevent depression, build strengths and enable well-being.

In Learned Optimism, Seligman presents research, analysis and examples on how our bias for living can change from pessimism to optimism. In our personal and professional lives, our abilities to harness the value of optimism, while countering pessimism, are vital. Bluntly stated, pessimism costs our people, families and teams wellness, capability and capacity.[2] This means, pessimism:

  • Promotes depression
  • Causes inertia in the face of setbacks
  • Ensures frequent failure – even when success is attainable
  • Associates with poor physical health[3]

Australian Army – Optimise enabling Optimism

In the Australian Army we optimise people, families and teams to reach their personal, professional and cultural potential. Arguably, and as Learned Optimism demonstrates, workforce optimisation is built on a foundation of optimism.

Optimise is to make the most of; develop or realise to the utmost extent; obtain the most efficient or optimum use of.[4] Optimism is the feeling of being hopeful about the future or about the success of something in particular.[5]

Combining the above definitions with Australian Army initiatives means Learned Optimism complements two key Army actions. These actions are first, Good Soldiering - Army’s cultural optimisation program, and second, Human Performance Centres. In a unified approach to optimising our people, families and teams, Good Soldiering was led by Army Headquarters while Human Performance Centres were locally self-developed throughout Army’s special forces units, combat brigades, training centres and enabling brigades.[6] Both actions emphasise Army’s optimal operating culture, developmental objectives, values and ethics.

These Army actions, strengthen optimism for our people, families and teams through:

  • Good Soldiering enabling a values-based mission command approach, empowering leaders and followers to develop optimal Army teams.[7]
  • People in teams are the Australian Army’s competitive edge.[8] We are resilient and potent military professionals who train and practise our skills deliberately and safely, we remain competent as leaders, and optimise our human performance through maximising the time our people spend with their teams which offers our people the opportunity to fully realise their personal, professional and cultural potential.[9]
  • An optimal culture strengthens our contribution to joint, integrated and partnered operations; ensures Army remains a trusted national institution; setting the conditions to succeed in Accelerated Warfare.[10]
  • Our culture is strong and positive, but there is always more we can do to enhance it. Every team and every team member play a significant role in creating an optimal culture.[11]
  • Our operating culture:
    • Based on Good Soldiering is enabled by continuous development of our workforce, through our leadership, combat behaviours and human performance optimisation for our people, families and teams.[12]
    • Optimises our land vehicle safety, land range safety and cyber worthiness systems while assessing key risks to our force and mission.[13] Optimisation and assessment are achieved through a framework of leadership, policy, practices, training, education, accountability and assurance.[14]
    • Optimises our ‘future ready’ structure and our capacity to scale where Accelerated Warfare requires Army to do more tasks, in all domains, at greater frequency. Army must increase our capacity and be ready to grow to succeed in conflict from a warm start.[15]
    • Develops a continuum of Human Performance Optimisation initiatives that progressively build our soldiers’ knowledge and skills from initial entry training, throughout their service in the trained force and during career development. In doing so, our focus is to:
      • Trial and evaluate human performance models.
      • Develop expertise to modernise Army’s Combat Physical Conditioning program.
      • Embrace technology to measure soldier physical conditioning and to proactively prevent injuries to our workforce.[16]

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Dr Seligman wrote Learned Optimism in three parts:

  1. The Quest
  2. The Realms of Life
  3. Changing from Pessimism to Optimism

Learned Optimism combines Seligman’s personal journey with his academic career. In doing so, Learned Optimism presents numerous anecdotes and human interactions, both successful and missteps, to keep the book simultaneously informative and personally accessible. Seligman’s work presents opportunities for us all to learn and improve ourselves, our families, our people, our teams and our communities.

Our habits of thinking have consequences. Pessimists give up more easily and frequently get depressed. Optimists are more successful at school, at work and in sport. Optimists are more likely to be elected to positions of leadership, their health is usually good, they age well and they live longer.[17] Learned Optimism defines and examines these  two personality types, pessimists and optimists, as follows:

Pessimists…believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do and are their own fault.

Optimists…believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case and defeat is not their fault.[18]

Dr Seligman finds that many people unknowingly live as pessimists. Learned Optimism demonstrates that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can become optimists by learning a new set of cognitive skills. Through a series of 12 tests and exercises, including for a reader’s children, Learned Optimism helps the reader overcome their pessimistic tendencies. If the reader is not a pessimist, then Learned Optimism enables you, as an optimist, to lead, enable and help others.[19]

Unlike many ‘personal qualities, basic pessimism is not fixed and unchangeable’.[20] At the core of pessimism is helplessness which is ‘the state of affairs in which nothing you choose to do affects what happens to you’.[21] All humans begin as helpless ‘newborn infants who cannot help themselves…and are almost entirely humans of reflex’.[22] In our last living years, we all may revert back to helplessness. The ‘long period between infancy and our last years is the process of…personal control’ which means our ‘ability to change things by one’s voluntary actions’.[23] Personal control is the opposite of helplessness.   

Within opportunities of personal control, there are ‘vast, unclaimed territories of actions over which we can take control – or cede control to others or to fate’. [24] Seligman argues that our ‘thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues’.[25] His research finds that if we ‘habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that misfortune is our fault, is enduring and will undermine everything we do, more [failure] will befall us than if we believe otherwise’…and we will ‘accomplish less than our potential’.[26] Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling.

Depression is the ‘ultimate expression of pessimism’.[27] Seligman argues that depression is rarely inherited and there is ‘no evidence that milder depression can be relieved by taking drugs’.[28] Instead, he argues that ‘depression occurs when we harbour pessimistic beliefs about the causes of [our] setbacks’ and ‘we can unlearn pessimism and acquire the skills for looking at setbacks optimistically’.[29]

For example, where achievement is usually link to a combination of ‘talent and desire’, Seligman adds that optimism is the third essential element of a person’s success and physical health.[30] Seligman links rumination, where ‘people mull over bad events’, to helplessness, pessimism and depression. He calls this connection the pessimism-rumination chain, leading people to the expectation of failure. [31]

Further, Seligman connects our society’s ‘epidemic of depression’ with our ‘self-preoccupation’ through the ‘rise of individualism and our [society’s] decline in commitment to the common good’.[32] Common good is commitment to ‘something larger than you are’.[33] For example, commitment to your family, team, community, and ultimately ‘defending Australia and its national interests’.[34] Seligman’s solution is to change the ‘balance between individualism and the commons’ by enabling learned optimism through the ‘strengths of the maximal-self’ while facilitating ‘commitment to the commons’.[35] These actions enable achievement of our personal, professional and cultural potential.

Personal control relies on two, intimately related, concepts: learned helplessness and explanatory style.[36] Learned helplessness is the ‘quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter’.  Explanatory style, or the ‘word in your heart’, is the way ‘you habitually explain to yourself why events happen…it is the great modulator of learned helplessness’. An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness.[37]

There are three crucial dimensions of our explanatory style:

  • Permanence: people who resist helplessness believe that the causes of bad events are temporary.[38]
  • Pervasiveness: people who make specific, as opposed to universal, explanations about misfortune, may become helpless in that one part of their lives…yet in other aspects of their life, march stalwartly forward.[39]  
  • Personalisation: people who ‘blame themselves when they fail, have low self-esteem’, and ‘people who blame external events, do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike’.[40]

As readers are aware, staff officers who utter the word ‘hope’ in a briefing are quickly dispatched back to their planning team with a cutting, and unhelpful, comment from their senior of ‘hope is not a strategy’ or ‘hope is not a plan’ or ‘hope is not a course of action’ or ‘hope is not a method’.[41] Seligman debunks this antipathy toward hope, explaining that:

'Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our explanatory style: pervasiveness and permanence. Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope. Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation. [In contrast] finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practise of despair.'[42]   

Conclusion

Learned Optimism concludes with techniques for an optimistic life. Dr Seligman notes that almost all optimists have ‘periods of at least mild pessimism’.[43] In achieving optimism, Seligman explains:

'…becoming an optimist consists…of learning a set of skills about how to talk to yourself when you suffer a personal defeat. You will learn to speak to yourself about your setbacks from a more encouraging viewpoint.'[44]  

The skills Seligman provides for positive self-talk in face of personal defeat are centred on ABCDE:

  • Adversity – define the adversity you face.
  • Belief – define your belief about this adversity, resist following your unconscious- or habitual-beliefs.
  • Consequence­ – define the consequence of this adversity, define how you feel about the adversity and how you will constructively disrupt potentially pessimistic thoughts.[45]
  • Disputation – define how you may dispute any of your pessimistic beliefs, through concentrating on evidence, implications and alternatives.[46] Disputation is the ‘prime technique for learned optimism’ especially in ‘disputing your automatic interpretations’ of adversity.[47]
  • Energisation  - observe the energisation you feel as you ‘succeed in dealing with negative beliefs’.[48]

As people, leaders and team members we must all maintain ‘optimism with our eyes open’. Optimism must remain flexible. As optimists, we can ‘use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it but without having to dwell in its dark shadows’.[49] Dr Seligman concludes that ‘once you get into the habit of disputing negative beliefs, your daily life will run much better and your will feel much happier’...’the benefits are without limit’.[50

 

This paper does not represent any official positions of the US Army or US Department of Defense or the Australian Army or Australian Department of Defence.