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Winifred Lender: Learned Optimism — How to See the Glass as Half Full

By Winifred Lender, Noozhawk Columnist |

We all know people who see the world as if it were a glass half full (GHF people) and those who see it if it as though it was a glass half empty (GHE people). Given the same situation, the GHF and GHE people walk away with an entirely different cognitive and emotional experience, and this experience can color the rest of their day.

Take, for example, a situation in which you are driving and are involved in a fender bender — being hit by another car. A GHF person might say, “Thank goodness it wasn’t more serious. It is lucky no one was really hurt. This is a big inconvenience, but these things happen to all of us.” A GHE person might say, “This car crash is just what I needed today. My day is ruined. Why do these things only happen to me?”

The ability to view the world like a GHF kind of person, also referred to as an optimistic worldview, is linked to lower rates of illness, anxiety and depression and higher recovery from trauma and quicker rehabilitation. In contrast, GHE people exhibit more learned helplessness, anxiety and depressed effect. Clearly there are physical and emotional benefits to seeing the world as though it were a glass half full.

We can see the trend toward developing a GHF or a GHE outlook in early childhood. Even preschool-age children display differences in how they view a situation; some look for the positives of a situation, while others harp on the negatives. Siblings raised in the same family with the same parental models can display very different ways of viewing the world. It seems as though having a GHF outlook is the lucky intermixing of genetics, personality and modeling. To assess to what degree you are a GHF person, you can take the optimism quiz online.

Even if you were not lucky enough to have a naturally optimistic or GHF outlook, you can learn to adopt this worldview.

Learned optimism is a term introduced by Dr. Martin Seligman to describe the idea that an optimistic view of the world can be cultivated by practicing the thinking style of those who are naturally optimistic. Seligman and colleagues found that people who were naturally optimistic tended to view good things as permanent and pervasive, bad things limited and fleeting, personalized good events and were able to normalize or externalize bad events. In contrast, those who had a more pessimistic view of the world saw good events as temporary and narrowly focused, bad events as permanent and pervasive, and viewed good events as due to luck or things external while bad events were the result of their own failures.

In the example of the fender bender, an optimist would see the event as fleeting and limited and something that happens to everyone. In contrast, the pessimist would view the event as example of the pervasive and permanent bad luck they have and see him or herself as causing the accident.

The optimistic and pessimistic interpretations of the fender bender lead to two different consequences with the optimistic person moving on with their day after the initial disruption caused by the event and the pessimistic person feeling upset, helpless and perhaps angry after yet again another unlucky situation that only happens to him or her. Repeatedly viewing experiences as the pessimist does can lead to anxiety and depression and health issues. In contrast, an ongoing optimistic view can lead to feelings of personal empowerment, positive mood and overall well-being.

Learned optimism has been well researched and has implications in many different areas. Seligman and colleagues conducted studies at the University of Pennsylvania and found that even the most pessimistic students could adopt a learned optimistic point of view, reducing their rates of anxiety and depression by consistently practicing and using these techniques. In addition, Peter Schuman at the Wharton School found that insurance salespeople trained in learned optimism scale sold 35 percent more than the pessimists and were less likely to quit their jobs than the pessimistic group. Ylvvisker and Feeney found that teaching learned optimism techniques to caretakers of children with brain damage resulted in the children’s increased ability as compared to similar children whose caretakers did not learn these techniques.

Seligman details the specific producer for learning optimism in his books. To get your feet wet and test of the procedure you can adopt the following techniques for two weeks.

» Pick a good and bad event each day and challenge yourself to view each as a learned optimist would. Focus on identifying permanent and pervasive features of good events and look for ways to personalize these. In contrast, work to find the fleeting, temporary and nonpersonal nature of bad events. You can journal about these events in a log.

» Try looking at the way others view bad and good events and challenge yourself to take the optimistic view of their situations.

» Start talking like an optimist. Challenge yourself to state the optimistic view of the events you journal about out loud to others daily.

» Realize that changing the way you habitually see the world is a process that requires time and effort.

» If you decide you like adopting a more optimistic worldview, consider reading Dr. Seligman's book titled Learned Optimism.

Wishing you a permanently and pervasively positive day ahead!

— Winifred Lender, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at [email protected]. She is the author of A Practical Guide to Parenting in the Digital Age: How to Nurture Safe, Balanced and Connected Children and Teens available at Chaucer’s and Amazon. Dr. Lender completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.


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