It’s a hard time to stay optimistic. Between the pandemic, the recession, and the protests both business and life are uncertain and challenging. But while it might be difficult to stay positive, decades of psychology research illustrate why it’s essential.
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman became a towering figure in the field of positive psychology in part because of his pioneering work making dogs depressed. In the landmark studies, Seligman subjected dogs to mild electric shocks with no way to escape the discomfort. He found that even if he later offered the unhappy animals an easy way to escape, they just sat there. They had learned helplessness. Essentially they got depressed.
If that sounds uncomfortably close to how 2020 is making you feel sometimes, the good news is that Seligman also found humans are different from dogs. While all dogs would sit there and take the shocks, a subset of people are able to fight back and stay determined when life kicks them around. We call those people optimists.
Optimism is a skill you can learn.
Many of us think of optimism as a personality trait you either have from childhood or you don’t. To some extent that’s true – your tendency to see the glass half full or half empty is partly controlled by genetic and other factors beyond your control. And pessimism can sometimes be beneficial. When you have high-risk decisions to make, fixating on what could go wrong is smart.
“You really don’t want optimistic pilots. When the cost of failure is large and catastrophic, you don’t want to use optimism skills,” Seligman has explained. (Entrepreneurship is another situation where a healthy dose of pessimism can pay off.)
But when it comes to getting your butt moving again after life has dealt you a series of setbacks, optimism is very helpful indeed. And Seligman’s later research showed it’s a skill that can be taught. In fact Seligman wrote a whole book on the subject with the straightforward title, Learned Optimism.
Check it out if you want a deep dive into the subject (or for a medium length option, the excellent Brain Pickings blog has a nice summary), but the key to becoming more optimistic is changing how you think about and explain the problems in your life. Specifically, optimists tend to think of failures and challenges as,
Changeable: You didn’t fail because you are forever stupid and incompetent. You failed because of a one-time screw up, bad luck, or circumstance.
Controllable: Next time you can do something different to get a different outcome. You, not fate, are in control.
Temporary: When you’re feeling negative, it can seem like everything is bleak. Optimists tend to see problems as discrete and limited rather than all pervasive.
Armed with this knowledge, the next time a series of bleak thoughts is playing on a loop in your head, you can push back against your pessimistic thinking. You are not one of Seligman’s poor dogs. You can talk yourself back to optimism, as long as you understand the way optimists think.
Or as Seligman put it in a recent NPR interview, “If we think of optimism as a trait, part of the temperament we were born into, it can feel inaccessible to those of us who don’t automatically default to a sunny view of life. But if you look under the hood, break optimism down into its smaller component parts, it feels like there might be more room in there for us all if we need it.”
And lots of us definitely need a shot of optimism right now.