Can Optimism Be Taught?

“Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.”

(Seligman, 2006).

Learned optimism is about how we interpret the world with the premise that optimism is not a fixed trait or part of our personality. Optimism is an outlook that we can cultivate. A good place to start is challenging our automatic negative thoughts. The other thing we can do to become more optimistic is through mental exercises.

Research suggests that these ‘optimism exercises’ can improve our outlook significantly. One of the most effective exercises is Best Possible Self Intervention. This is where you visualise yourself in the future, where everything has gone to plan in your life. This encourages you to dream and open yourself up to new possibilities and positive outcomes.

There are also a few cognitive and perceptual explanations for why people tend to be either optimistic or pessimistic.

They are:

1. Information processing:  Suppose you pay more attention to the presence of water rather than its absence – that’s being optimistic. A good example of this is, do you see a glass as half-full or half-empty? Where does your focus lie? You disregard the fact that half the glass is not filled, filtering out the signs that don’t correspond with your positive outlook. Studies suggest that pessimists do the opposite and spend more time engaging with unpleasant cues than optimists (Isaacowitz, 2005, 2006).

2. Locus of control:  This refers to our confidence that we can change or control parts of our life. An internal locus of control is associated with optimism; this is the belief that you can take an active role in controlling your environment in general. In contrast, those with an external locus of control tend to feel helpless about changing their relationships, lives, and so forth. They feel at the mercy of external circumstances.

3. Attributional style:  When we explain or attribute failure to internal, fixed, personal factors, we see them as uncontrollable. A failed relationship, for example, becomes “I am not worth loving”, – which is a pessimistic outlook.

When we explain failure to external, localised, and short-term circumstances, we can still be hopeful that things can work out differently next time, that the problem wasn’t ‘me’. This is distinctly optimistic.

There are psychological reasons why we may be pessimistic at a specific time in our lives, but we can generally learn to be more optimistic and focus on the right things that will make us more hopeful for the future.