Learned Optimism – Review


I just finished reading Learned Optimism by Martin E. P. Seligman. I forget which blog pointed me to this book, but it caught my interest because I’ve always been depressed (or at least extremely pessimistic) and because everything I’ve read about sports psychology points to the importance of optimism in sports performance.

  • In The New Toughness Training for Sports, James Loehr talks about how important it is to maintain a positive emotional state and to recover quickly from mistakes.
  • In Mind Gym, the other book everyone should read, Gary Mack talks about the importance of having a good self image (“No one can out-perform their self image.”).

Learned Optimism spells out the difference between negative and positive thinking better than anything else I’ve read. I’d definitely recommend it if you suspect  your own pessimism is holding you back from succeeding in your sport or in life in general. The book documents the trajectory of Seligman’s research, from helpless lab rats to depressed human beings, and concludes with a method for treating pessimism and becoming habitually more optimistic.

I only have space to review the book, but in the next post I’m going to get into how this connects to mental toughness. I’m going to use a popular webcomic as a point of reference. Get excited!

Review of the Book

Seligman found that lab rats could be taught to be helpless. He discovered that humans, too, could be taught to be helpless in exactly the same way. Something interesting, though: a minority of both lab animals and humans were stubborn optimists, refusing to becoming helpless. The principal difference between people who become helpless and those who don’t is the way they perceive and describe adversity. The idea is that misfortunes in childhood and adolescence teach some of us to be helpless, and the result is pessimism or worse, depression.

Seligman then describes his technique for getting pessimists to see their lives the  way optimists do. This therapy cures people of clinical depression more effectively than drugs do. He goes a step further, asserting that normal, non-depressed people would benefit from being more optimistic.

Explanatory Style

Seligman calls the way people perceive and describe their lives their “explanatory style.” Changing a pessimist’s explanatory style to one that’s more optimistic simply involves getting the pessimist to dispute their pessimistic inner monologue. There are three dimensions to a person’s explanatory style.

  • Permanence: The pessimist believes his or her problems will last forever and that the good times are flukes. The optimist sees problems as temporary and fleeting.
  • Pervasiveness: The pessimist believes a given misfortune will affect his or her whole life. The optimist sees any setback as an isolated event.
  • Personalization: The pessimist blames himself  for his problems. Optimists blame others or circumstances in general. Likewise, pessimists never credit themselves for their successes, while optimists always credit themselves.

For example, if you’re a pessimist and you get into an argument with a loved one, you’ll blame yourself, you’ll believe the problem is going to last forever and you’ll predict the quality of your whole life will suffer as a result. An optimist would blame an external cause (their partner or something else), see the problem as temporary, and wouldn’t expect it to affect any other part of their life.

When to stop blaming ourselves?

The most interesting dimension is definitely personalization. This is where things get a little weird: everyone distorts reality in their head to fit their worldview. Your interpretation of reality is crucial – when you choose to blame something other than yourself for your misfortunes, you are literally bending the fabric of reality itself to keep yourself healthy.

Actually, if you’re a pessimist, reality is usually on your side. Pessimists reach to absurd conclusions to blame themselves for their problems. For example, they’ll blame themselves when it rains on a picnic they put together. Even so, Seligman and other researchers have found that pessimists see reality more clearly than optimists, especially when assessing themselves.

There’s obviously a question here of  responsibility. For myself, I’ve always assumed that being hard on myself was part of my credibility, but I have definitely been going overboard with it my whole life. How much is too much when you stop blaming yourself for your misfortunes? I’ll get into this later.


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