Bodhi Book Summary: Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.
Summarized and Reviewed by Pete Landi
The Brief Summary
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. is a ground-breaking book from a pioneering psychologist and researcher. Inside, he shares how we can make meaningful improvements to our lives by shifting our personal explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic.
What distinguishes two categories of people -- those that overcome adversity versus those that give up easily -- is their different "explanatory styles". People with a pessimistic style fare worse after a bad event than those with an optimistic style. Dr. Seligman and others have proven that people with a pessimistic style can be trained to adopt an optimistic style. And even better, once a person is trained in the optimistic techniques, the benefits last the person's whole life. This book covers those techniques in vivid detail.
Bodhi Band community members will love that Learned Optimism teaches readers how to improve their odds of future success and happiness. All of us face adversity off and on throughout our whole lives, but those of us who have mastered optimism in the face of bad events will bounce back faster, keep trying more times, succeed more often, and be happier.
The Long Summary
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. is a ground-breaking book from a pioneering psychologist and researcher. As the founder of "positive psychology", Dr. Seligman brings a career's worth of experience and legitimacy to the question of how a person can make meaningful improvements to their life by shifting their personal explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic.
In this book we learn about the journey he and his fellow researchers took as they tried to understand why some people are able to keep trying in the face adversity, while other people become helpless and lose hope. They speculated that people are prone to becoming helpless if they have "learned" that their own actions don't matter, and they were able to prove that idea out using both animals and humans.
Dr. Seligman's research led over time to the understanding that the difference between these two types of people -- those that overcome adversity versus those that give up easily -- is their different "explanatory styles". People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to fare worse after a bad event than those with an optimistic explanatory style. And this effect is causal, meaning that a person isn't just more optimistic AFTER bouncing back from a bad event (or more pessimistic after failing to bounce back), but the person's personal style predicts how well they will do after an adverse moment.
The good news in all of this research is that Dr. Seligman and others have proven through studies and experimentation that people with a pessimistic explanatory style can be trained through cognitive therapy to adopt an optimistic style. And even better, once a person is trained in the optimistic techniques, the benefits are permanent; they last the person's whole life. This book walks the reader through those exact techniques, complete with multiple examples of them being put to use across a variety of real-world scenarios.
So, in terms that are useful for the members of the Bodhi Band community, Learned Optimism teaches readers how to improve their odds of future success and happiness by reshaping the way they think about and respond to adversity in their lives. All of us face adversity off and on throughout our whole lives, but those of us who have mastered optimism in the face of bad events will bounce back faster, keep trying more times, succeed more often, and be happier.
Enjoyable to Read: 3 out of 5
This book, originally released over 30 years ago, has been updated through multiple editions by now, although some of the references are a bit dated in places. The writing style is easy and narrative driven, and there are multiple tests built into the text that you can take at your leisure. Dr. Seligman's research is enduringly interesting and hopeful, which kept us turning the page until the end.
The book can be a bit repetitive in places. This is because Dr. Seligman takes the same learnings and shows the reader how they apply across multiple varied scenarios. If you have an interest in all of those scenarios, then you'll likely read them all in detail; if not, you may find yourself skipping to the chapters that apply directly to you.
Overall, we give Learned Optimism an average score for reading enjoyability, but this score does not take away from the power of the information shared within the book.
Reviewer's Overall Rating: 5 out of 5
Learned Optimism has the potential to be a life-changing book, and as such scores a high rating from Bodhi Band. What makes it so important? It's from this book that we learn some of the most important discoveries from Dr. Martin Seligman's career researching psychology. First, that pessimists have worse outcomes than optimism in terms of physical health, mental health, success and happiness. Second, that pessimism isn't just a result of bad outcomes, but that it is also a cause. Third, that people can be taught through cognitive therapy how to retrain their pessimistic "explanatory styles" to be more optimistic. Fourth, that those new skills and learnings will last a lifetime. And finally, he shares specific techniques that you can practice right now, including many example scenarios of those techniques in action across a multitude of settings.
So, in short, Learned Optimism lays out clear and practical techniques for how to achieve more success and happiness in your life, all backed by decades of research into cognitive science.
Actionable Info: 3 out of 5
- Take the Optimist test @ Dr. Seligman's U Penn website, or take the test at the beginning of Learned Optimism to learn your personal explanatory style.
- Keep an ABC diary for a few days. A = Adversity (something bad happened); B = Belief (how you interpret the adversity); C = Consequences (how you feel, what were the feelings and actions that result)
- Practice the skill of Disputation. When you encounter a negative belief (B) from an adversity (A), use Disputation to test how real the belief is. Seeking evidence, Present alternatives, Explore its implications, Determine its usefulness.
- Get a trusted friend to help you with disputation. Have them hurl negative beliefs at you (the same sorts that you subject yourself to), then use your disputation techniques to practice shooting down those beliefs.
- List out your top one to five most dreaded work tasks, then conduct the ABCDE exercise with them. What is the Adversity, what pessimistic Beliefs do you have about it, what are the Consequences of those beliefs, how would you Dispute them, and what is your new Energization level after completing this.
Quality of the Ideas: 5 out of 5
|Pessimism is a world-view that is driven by the way that a person processes and reacts to bad events.|
|Pessimism is in most cases an undesirable state because it leads to things like prolonged depression, feelings of helplessness, lower levels of health and less professional & personal success.|
|In lab tests with both animals and humans, we've discovered that some people are particularly prone to giving up, to abject helplessness, when faced with an unwinnable situation. But some people bounce back quickly. Those people who bounce back more quickly score higher on the positivity scale than those who don't. Conversely, pessimists do not bounce back and remain stuck in a helpless state.|
|Each person has an "explanatory" style in which they react to adversity, and this explanatory style is a driver in how pessimistic or optimistic a person will be.|
|Your explanatory style describes how you react to both bad events and good events across these three dimensions:
Permanence - How long-lasting the cause of the adversity is perceived to be.
Pervasiveness - How wide-spread the cause of the adversity is perceived to be.
Personalization - To what degree we perceive faults within ourselves as causing adversity.
|Scoring low on all three of those dimensions means that you tend to think of problems as temporary, limited setbacks created by things outside of your control, and as a result you are much more likely to be optimistic about conditions improving in the near future. Because of this, you feel less helpless and are more likely to brush yourself off and keep trying then things don't go your way.|
|Personal explanatory styles are not permanent. They are not a fixed part of your personality. Science has shown decisively that people with a pessimistic explanatory style can be taught to use an optimistic style, resulting in less depression and better rates of success in those people.|
|Ruminators are people who continually mull over bad events. Ruminators can be optimistic or pessimistic, but it is the pessimistic group that is in the most danger of depression because they are continually subjecting themselves to a negative explanatory style.|
|Women are much more likely to be ruminators than men, which may possibly explain why women suffer from depression at twice the rate as men.|
|Cognitive therapy is used to retrain a person to use an optimistic explanatory style, which in turn helps combat depression and achieve higher levels of success. This "cure" can help someone for the rest of their life.|
|For jobs that involve long-struggles or frequent rejections, a shift to a positive explanatory style predicts greater success and happiness in that role.|
|Children (both boys and girls) get their explanatory styles from their mothers, usually not their fathers. This is not heritable; rather, children learn their style from their primary caregiver, who is more often the mother.|
|Explanatory style is somewhat predictive of outcomes in both sports and politics. Participants who score higher in optimism are more likely to win than participants who score higher in pessimism.|
|Explanatory style is somewhat predictive of health outcomes. Patients with similar diseases have better outcomes if they are optimistic than if they are pessimistic.|
|Disputation is the process by which you challenge your pessimistic (permanent, pervasive & personalized) beliefs by:
1. Seeking evidence (is this negative belief I hold backed up by facts?)
2. Presenting alternatives (are there different plausible causes for this adversity?)
3. Exploring the implications (is this adversity really that bad? Really? Decatastrophizing)
4. Determining usefulness (is this negative belief actually useful for me right now, or can I put off dwelling on it until I have time)
Quotability: 3 out of 5
|"My profession spends most of its time trying to make the troubled less troubled. Helping troubled people is a worthy goal, but somehow psychology almost never gets around to the complementary goal of making the lives of well people even better." Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (2006)|
|"The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault." Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (2006)|
|"Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think." Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (2006)|
|"Optimism and pessimism affect health itself, almost as clearly as do physical factors. Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (2006)|
|"Now, after seven years of experiments, it was clear to us that the remarkable attribute of resilience in the face of defeat need not remain a mystery. It was not an inborn trait; it could be acquired." Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (2006)|
|"Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better." Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (2006)|
|"Anytime you find yourself down or anxious or angry, ask what you are saying to yourself. Sometimes the beliefs will turn out to be accurate; when this is so, concentrate on the ways you can alter the situation and prevent adversity from becoming disaster. But usually your negative beliefs are distortions. Challenge them. Don't let them run your emotional life." Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (2006)|
|"Everyone has his own point of discouragement, his own wall. What you do when you hit this wall can spell the difference between helplessness and mastery, between failure and success." Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (2006)|
|...one necessary condition for meaning is the attachment to something larger than you are. The larger the entity you attach yourself to, the more meaning you can derive." Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (2006)|