Can optimism be learned? Really?

Learned optimism is a concept developed by Martin Seligman, a leader in the area of positive psychologyIt’s widely taught by positive psychology trainers and coaches, because it helps people overcome negative thinking patterns. Seligman has shown that you can learn to think optimistically by challenging negative self-talk. He has modified techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help people who don’t need counselling reach their full potential.  

Research suggests that optimism brings a variety of positive outcomes to your life. According to work from researchers at Concordia University’s Department of Psychology, optimists have a better biological response to stress. While pessimists experience higher cortisol levels as part of their stress response, optimists often find it easier to regulate their cortisol levels. Positive psychology trainers draw on this information when teaching their students to modify their thinking patterns using mindfulness techniques and Seligman’s ABCDE model for cognitive reframing.  

Overall, it seems that optimists respond better to stress and recover faster when they experience setbacks. This provides a significant advantage in stressful situations, such as a looming deadline or unexpected setback on a project. Through learned optimism, entire teams and organisations can develop the mindset needed to remain cool under pressure.  

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According to positive psychology trainers, these simple steps can help you shift into a more optimistic mode. 

  • Pay closer attention to your negativity, including negative assumptions and the conclusions you draw 
  • Always try to dispute negative beliefs by generating counterarguments to your initial reaction 
  • Write out the counterevidence on a piece of paper to help visualise your thoughts 
  • Look for positive aspects in negative situations to help reframe the way you view adversity 
  • Give yourself and others positive feedback whenever possible to encourage more positivity 

About the author of this article: 

Eleanor Shakiba is a specialist in positive psychology training. She has helped over 50,000 professionals to build confidence, presence and influence at work. Her passion is working with the ‘positive deviants’ in organisations – equipping them to think creatively and build a better world. Eleanor is the author of the Positive Psychology Toolkit for HR and L&D practitioners. She also runs a range of retreats and workshops for trainers and facilitators.