Learned Optimism

“Curing the negatives does not produce the positives.”
~ Martin Seligman

The Skills Of Happiness    

The absence of disease does not produce vitality, strength, fitness, or radiant health either physically or mentally.  Superior health must be cultivated purposefully, and does not occur without decisive, consistent effort.

Things like strength training, good nutrition, restorative sleep, recreation, pure water, and clean air contribute to superior physical health.

So what can we do to achieve superior mental health?

What is the strength training of the mind as related to happiness? 

What kind of thinking habits, patterns, and skills produce optimism in the face of daily stresses and challenges?  

black mother and daughter

Our thinking patterns today have a foundation in our past as a child. Oftentimes it is necessary to correct negative thinking patterns that do not serve us well.

Martin Seligman, Phd., has devoted his career not only to understanding and treating depression, but also to discovering the skills of happiness. He identifies the first form of happiness as the Pleasant Life.

The Pleasant Life aims to build skills to increase positive emotions through learned optimism. These skills are then used to develop other forms of happiness (see Happiness articles).

The foundation of the Pleasant Life is found in one’s thinking patterns or habits.  We are often unaware of the thoughts that accompany our actions and experiences.  Our thoughts are making almost constant interpretations and explanations about our experiences.

Just as we are creatures of habit and routine in our daily lives, we have well-established routines, patterns, and habits in our thinking. These influence and largely determine the level of optimism or pessimism we experience.

These patterns of thinking are learned in childhood and are related to your view of yourself, others, and the world.  They develop into what Seligman calls an “explanatory style,” or way of explaining and interpreting one’s experiences.

A pessimistic explanatory style can last throughout your life unless you take steps to change it.

Learned optimism is not the same as positive thinking.  It is a specific skill set to use when encountering difficulties both large and small.

Learned optimism is not repeating positive affirmations like “I am beautiful and smart, and that’s how everyone sees me,” or “smile when it hurts most.”  Rather, it is the way we explain the causes of the challenges in our lives.

When you experience difficulties, small or large, what do you think about the causes?

Here are some important questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I believe bad events are permanent and a never-ending pattern of defeat?
  • Do I think in terms of always and never, versus sometimes and lately?
  • Do I habitually blame myself when I fail?
  • Do I feel guilty and ashamed, and believe that I am a failure?
  • Have I allowed a setback or difficulty to color other areas of my life, catastrophizing, and projecting its effects across time and in many different situations?


If you typically think about your challenges, failures, rejections, and setbacks in terms of always and never, you likely have a pessimistic explanatory style.

If you qualify negative events with words such as sometimes and lately, you likely have an optimistic style.

If you discover that you lean toward a pessimistic explanatory style, recognize that this need not be a permanent condition!


What are the skills of an optimistic explanatory style that will produce the positives?

There are three important dimensions of explanatory style to understand and apply:

1.  Permanence:  sometimes vs. always

2.  Pervasiveness:  specific vs. global

3.  Personalization:  internal vs. external  



We are most at risk for depression when we believe the causes of difficulties or negative events are enduring.  The risks of depression and anxiety are greatly reduced and we rebound from setbacks when we believe that the cause of challenges are temporary.

depressed teen

Permanence is a state of mind when we believe that our circumstances will persist causing us to have a depressed outlook on life.  

Here is what it looked like for one of my clients, a young adult with a college degree who was currently between jobs.  She had been experiencing a great deal of depression and anxiety since moving home with her parents. She was actively applying for employment in her field and had been interviewed for several positions–even being called back for a second interview.

While she was waiting to hear from prospective employers, her anxiety and depression levels were nearly unbearable.  She agreed to keep a daily mood log.  She rated her levels of depression and anxiety and recorded the situations and thoughts related to her moods.

A pattern soon emerged.  Her symptoms of depression and anxiety increased when her thoughts were along the lines of “no one will ever want me. I’m not as intelligent as the others who are applying for this job.”

Despite having been called back to a second interview, she was pessimistic about her ability to stand out and be offered the job.  Her thoughts were inconsistent with the reality that she was a well-qualified, competitive candidate.

“I’m not as good as others,” was a permanent explanation, concluding that she was defective and somehow inferior.

However, it was a completely unrealistic explanation of her actual abilities.  My client believed the cause of being jobless would last indefinitely.



Not only did my client believe that the cause was permanent, but she expected that the effects would be lasting and felt across many different situations in her life.  Her explanation of the causes was permanent and pervasive.  Her pessimistic explanatory style spread to other areas of her life.

She felt that her “deficiencies” made her uninteresting socially, and she isolated herself in other areas of her life.  Where she had previously played college rugby and other sports, she felt she was now a klutz.  She believed that others felt sorry for her–that she was a failure and wouldn’t ever amount to much in life.

My client withdrew from her family and often retreated to her bedroom.  She dressed in sweats and didn’t want to go out with her friends.  Nothing brought her pleasure except for her frequent trips to McDonald’s.

She believed she was not immediately offered a job because she was a complete loser.  She had a global rather than specific explanation for not being offered a job, and she soon gave up on everything.



My client also decided she was at fault, and blamed herself for the circumstances in her life.  This is what we call personalizing or deciding who is at fault.

weight of the world

Sometimes we feel as if we carry the weight of the world on our backs. When we take everything that happens in our life to be our fault then we personalize every outcome.  

When she was challenged by not getting a job immediately, my client could blame herself (internal) or blame other circumstances (external).  Because her explanatory style was pessimistic, she believed she hadn’t been offered a job because she was stupid (an internal explanation).

Had she been able to believe that it was the result of external and temporary factors such as a slow time of year for employment or a struggling economy (external explanation), or even blaming a specific action such as not putting out enough resumes or following up on job leads, she would be motivated to keep working hard and not give up in other areas of her life.

It is interesting to note that optimistic and pessimistic individuals also differ in how they respond to positive life events.  Optimists associate these events with permanent personality traits and abilities like being intelligent, having a strong work ethic, and being loveable.

Pessimists, on the other hand, attribute the causes to something that is more temporary, such as a good mood, and qualify it with “sometimes” or “today.”

An optimistic explanatory style is really strength training of the mind–taking a realistic view of yourself and reaching far beyond repeating positive affirmations.  It is a human tendency to discount the positive and inflate the negative.

The reality is that the causes of bad events are numerous, but we often fail to to identify more than one possible cause.  Instead, we catastrophize and don’t follow the facts.

With this in mind, each time you experience a negative life event, tune in to your negative thoughts that support a negative explanatory style and change the explanations by actively seeking out alternative reasons.  This will change your feelings and allow you to feel alive, hopeful, and empowered.



Join Empowered Life Solutions Today!

Barbara Lovell, LCSW, RPT-S; Lead Writer at Empowered Life Solutions

“Every life has a purpose our mission is to help you find yours.”

Related Reading:

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman


Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.

Sign Up to View the Accompanying Workbook Exercises

woorkbook exercises greyed out