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Learning Optimism

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

A quick update on one of my Positive Psychology assignments, before I bury myself once more in the literature! I am getting so much out of this course and today had a tutorial with one of my module leaders. I was pleased, if not a little relieved, to hear that she thought the direction my research on optimism is taking an interesting turn.

My interpretation of practising optimism daily has taken the form of spending a few minutes each morning making optimistic or positive predictions about the day to come. I do this whilst making plans for the day and reviewing my schedule and so far I have noticed that it has helped me to become more focused on the present, and dare I say it perhaps a little less worried about the future at the same time.

Whether this is because I am setting my intention, replacing automatic negative predictions with positive ones or just that I am more aware when tasks, meetings and activities happen in line with my positive expectations, I am not sure! But I certainly have noticed a difference in the way I am starting my day and I pay more attention when I get s*&t done, so that's good.

In recent years there has been quite a bit of scientific study related to the difference between optimists and pessimists, most with the overwhelming conclusion that optimists generally tend to be happier and have higher well-being than pessimists.

As a natural pessimist, up until now I have been focusing on making optimistic predictions in the hope that practising future-focused optimism daily will lead (as the research suggests) to an increase in overall (subjective) well-being. However, and it's a big however, there is a whole other side to optimism and a whole lot more too it. Psychologists have examined at the differences between how optimistic and pessimistic people relate to past and current events and the way they account for what causes both good and bad events in their lives with some interesting results..

According to the psychologist and author of Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman, the key is in how you explain and attribute the reasons for things that happen in your life both the good, the bad and even the ugly.

The Optimist has a very telling reaction when bad or frustrating things happen, they don't assume this means something negatively fundamental about themselves and they often attribute the bad event to something temporary.

The Pessimist is likely to do the opposite and assume when experiencing a set back that it is because of something they are fundamentally lacking or getting wrong , across many areas of their lives and also that this is fixed and permanent. As an example:

Bad event: You get a parking ticket

Optimist: Oh rubbish - I should be more careful next time, I have had a hard week, didn't notice the time! Perhaps I need a break.

Pessimist: OMG - this is totally typical. This BS always happens to me, I am always getting things wrong.

In short pessimists are more likely to give up. They personalise bad events too which makes it even harder to 'look on the bright side' as there isn't one.

Interesting for good events the converse is true - the Pessimist often writes these off as a fluke and has difficulty relating good outcomes to some good quality within them. The Optimist on the other hand more naturally both notices good outcomes and internalises them. A great example is being given a compliment about something:

Good event: a friend pays you a compliment

Pessimist: they are just being kind or are just in a good mood...or they feel sorry for me

Optimist: yes I know I am a reasonably good dresser/clear speaker/ sick dancer/creative, my work on this has paid off, I inspire others by being me

There is of course a place for pessimism in the world...for some of the big things that require high levels of realism, like life changing decisions, taking risks in business etc. But consider all the multitudes of explanations we make to ourselves every day on the little things...perhaps praticing some optimism around our daily set backs and successes is worth a try to help build resilience for when the poo really hits the fan?

Luckily the brief of my assignment is that it is auto-ethnographic (using self-reflection and writing to explore our own personal experience and connect this to academic and scientific understanding) and as such we are allowed and encouraged to evolve our thinking over time as we research our chosen topics.

I plan to once per week practice reviewing my explanations for both good and bad events and challenge myself to be a proper Optimist (with a capital O!). Wish me luck!


Learned Optimism, Martin P Seligman and Optimistic Explanatory Style, The Handbook of Positive Psychology, Christopher Peterson & Tracy A. Steen.

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