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22. And More on Optimism

PUBLISHED 12th July , 2016

If you have read the previous two blog posts, you should now have a basic idea of how your style of explaining good and bad events relates to your level of optimism or pessimism. If you have taken the optimism questionnaire (see link in Post 20) you will know where you sit.

At a most basic level one could say that an optimist expects that good things will happen for him or her in the future, and a pessimist believes that bad things await.1 The reason it is important to strive toward optimism is that none of us can eliminate difficulties from our lives (if only we could!). It is in the face of setbacks or problems that we need optimism most. Carver and Scheier point out that when individuals are faced with adversity, they naturally respond with a variety of emotions such as anger, anxiety or depression; the balance of which is decided by their degree of pessimism or optimism.2

Another area in which optimism comes into play is in our experience of success. This is because our level of optimism affects our ability to be persistent. Seligman argues that success is dependent on ability, aptitude, strong motivation and persistence:

A composer can have all the talent of a Mozart and a passionate desire to succeed, but if he believes he cannot compose music, he will come to nothing. He will not try hard enough. He will give up too soon when the elusive right melody takes too long to materialise. Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure.3

You will hear this sort of statement from anyone who has had success: they didn’t give up; they persevered even when it all became very hard. I am not saying that everyone needs to be a super successful, well-connected professional, or an Instagram personality with one million followers, or a super fit yummy mummy who is also a sought after lawyer. (Gee that made me tired just writing it.) I feel that expectations in our society are out of control and everyone ought to remember that Superman is a fictional figure. No, success can be taking up an exercise regime and sticking to it, maintaining a long term relationship with a partner who has difficult character traits, or completing a study course. For this we need persistence, and if we are low on optimism our persistence will be absent or running dry too quickly. In those cases we need to consciously go about raising our optimism.

Simon lived a number of years in boarding houses and on the streets. Since he had been a little boy he had wanted to own a dog. His mother, however, did not like dogs and never allowed him one. During his homelessness, Simon dreamed of having a dog, which eventually became his motivation for changing his life. He moved into supported accommodation, and two years later, when Simon knew he could provide a good life for him, he brought home a Border Collie puppy whom he called Hagen. He took Hagen to puppy training classes, where the centre manager recognised Simon’s gentle way of working with his dog. She asked Simon to join the centre committee, where he began to edit the newsletter, help out with training, and assist in looking after the dogs in day care. He went on to complete an Animal Studies course at TAFE and now has a paid position at the centre. Simon went from being a hermit on a disability pension to working with dogs full time. He says that he got a dog so he could be the best person he could be and that having Hagen changed his life.4

Simon is a success story. He took one step – the one of ensuring he had a permanent home. Then many good things followed. And so it is with working consciously to combat our pessimism. As a wellbeing tool, challenging our pessimism might seem more difficult and less exciting than doing acts of kindness or running every week. Many of you may be tempted to read past the instructions following and leave them for another day. I encourage you to try them. Take that small step. To recognise, challenge and counteract our beliefs and our regular pathways of thinking is immensely powerful and can truly set us free.

Seligman’s formula for learning optimism is named ABCDE. I suggest you do this in writing once a day for at least one week. Maybe carry a little notebook to help catch your reaction in the moment, or do it in the evening in hindsight.

A stands for adversity, i.e. something big or small that goes wrong or is unpleasant. Take note of encountering an adversity in your day. Whenever we are faced with adversity we respond with a thinking process. You need to write down this thinking process.

B stands for beliefs. Seligman points out that our beliefs are often habitual, and that we can be unaware of them. Beliefs form the basis of our interpretation and the way we think about an adversity. Consider your reaction and the thoughts you wrote down, and search for beliefs that underlie your response.

C stands for consequences. Consequences consist of: 1. How and what we feel as a result of an adversity and our arising corresponding thoughts and beliefs. 2. Our actions – what we do. Write down how you felt as a consequence of the adversity and the thought process that followed it, and what you did in response.

D stands for disputation, the step of reviewing the belief. It includes disputing it, distancing ourselves from it, seeking evidence and alternatives for it, regarding its implications and usefulness, and/or distracting ourselves from it. Take an objective point of view, and challenge each belief.

E stands for energisation. This arises as the result of having combated useless, untrue, unhelpful and catastrophising beliefs. Energisation is what we feel when we have consciously worked through our train of thoughts and have challenged our beliefs. It is the optimistic, hopeful and peaceful feeling that is accompanied by having reconsidered a pessimistic reaction.5 The above steps are not easy, but if you keep working with this formula the rewards are amazing.

Seligman points out that sometimes, however, a pessimistic reaction is right and justified.6 For example, if you find yourself alone in a train wagon with a shady character whose erratic behaviour is increasingly unnerving – be pessimistic! If you are starting a business and want to fund it by re-mortgaging your house – be pessimistic in your estimates! If you have drunk too much and consider your chances of driving home – be downright pessimistic. Sometimes the cost of thinking that everything will be all right can be high indeed. The rule of thumb offered by Seligman is that if the cost of failure is low, we should be optimistic. If the cost is high, i.e. if we could be seriously harmed, loose our life or livelihood, or do some serious harm to someone else, it is best to use pessimism.7

Further, Seligman stresses that when considering optimism there is a caveat in regard to responsibility. You may recall that optimists tend to think that bad events are caused by external causes or others. But what if we are in fact responsible for a bad event? Seligman warns that in the discussion on optimism it should be remembered that positive psychology is not about shedding responsibility.8 If anything, positive psychology should turn us into more responsible people, who, with awareness of what emotionally builds or hurts them are able to be increasingly thoughtful in the way they interact with the world.

© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015


  1. Charles S. Carver and Michael F. Scheier, “Optimism,” in Handbook of Positive Psychology, eds. C. R. Snyder and Shane. J. Lopez (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  2. Carver and Scheier, “Optimism”.
  3. Martin E. P. Seligman, Learned Helplessness: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York: Vintage Books, 2006).
  4. Amy Moran, “Man’s Best Friend Changes Simon’s Life for the Better,” Guardian Messenger (10 June 2015): http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/messenger/west-beaches/mans-best-friend-changes-simons-life-for-the-better/story-fni9llx9-1227391273447
  5. All theoretical concepts presented from Seligman, Learned Helplessness.
  6. Seligman, Learned Helplessness.
  7. Seligman, Learned Helplessness.
  8. Seligman, Learned Helplessness.



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