Optimism is a skill, not just a personality trait

I grew up as a pessimist, believing it was the way I was born. I would frequently justify my pessimism with the saying, “a pessimist is just an optimist with experience.” I associated myself with pessimism so much that I considered optimism as naivety. How can someone be optimistic in this hard world? However, when I discovered Dr. Martin Seligman’s book “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”, I felt intrigued.

The word “Learned” in the title piqued my interest, suggesting that optimism might be something one can acquire. The presence of Dr. Seligman’s name was reassuring; as the “father of positive psychology,” I was confident this wouldn’t be just another non-fiction book that over-promises and under-delivers. It turned out to be the most impactful non-fiction work I have ever read.

What makes someone an optimist or a pessimist?

The answer lies in our explanatory style, which refers to how we explain our experiences, whether positive or negative. Our explanatory style comprises three components:

Permanence: This refers to how long we believe a situation or its cause will last. Optimists tend to see positive events as more permanent and negative events as temporary. For example, if an optimist fails a test, they might think “I didn’t do well this time,” implying it is a one-off occurrence. If a pessimist fails a test, they might think “I’m no good at taking tests,” implying it is a permanent issue.

Pervasiveness: This refers to how we generalize an event. Optimists tend to compartmentalize, believing that a negative event in one area of their life does not necessarily impact other areas. For instance, an optimist who experiences a setback at work is less likely to let that influence their opinion of their abilities in other areas of their life. On the other hand, a pessimist might view a single negative event as an indicator that everything is going wrong.

Personalization: This refers to whether we attribute the events in our lives to internal or external factors. Optimists usually attribute positive outcomes to their own efforts, while attributing negative outcomes to external circumstances. Pessimists, in contrast, tend to blame themselves for negative outcomes and credit luck or external factors for positive results.

The science behind learned optimism

The encouraging news is that optimism can be cultivated – something I can personally vouch for, much to my original surprise. While genetics do play a role in optimism (some studies indicate around 25%), the environment is the more influential factor. An environment promoting persistence, resilience, and proactive problem-solving is likely to foster an optimistic mindset.

But why should one aspire to be an optimist? Seligman’s research reveals that learned optimism helps reduce the risk of depression, boosts the immune system, improves chronic disease outcomes, and can even prolong life. Additionally, it offers extensive benefits in personal relationships and career success.

How to become more optimistic

In his book, Seligman introduces the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) model ABCDE:

Adversity: Identifying the adverse event.

Belief: Acknowledging our beliefs about the event.

Consequences: Understanding the emotional consequences of our beliefs.

Disputation: Challenging these beliefs.

Energization: Replacing the negative beliefs with a positive ones, leading to motivation and energy.

How to apply the ABCDE model in our life

Let’s apply this model to a common challenge many professionals face: achieving work-life balance.

Adversity: First, we acknowledge that we have been working more than we desired, leaving little time for personal activities or relaxation.

Belief: Initially, we might think, “I’m terrible at managing my time,” or “This job is unhealthy for me.”

Consequences: These beliefs can lead to feelings of stress, overwhelm, and dissatisfaction with both our professional and personal life.

Disputation: We take a step back and objectively evaluate these beliefs. Perhaps there have been particularly high demands at work recently, or maybe we have been trying to prove ourselves to a new manager or team. We might be distracted by other things, causing us to work less efficiently and needing more time to finish our tasks. We can then remind ourselves that most people struggle with time management and it is a skill we can improve with practice and effort. This reflection may reveal that our initial beliefs are not entirely accurate.

Energization: After successfully disputing our initial belief, we replace it with a positive one. We might think, “I have successfully balanced various responsibilities in the past, and I can do it again”, or “This is an opportunity to delegate more and learn to say ‘no’ when necessary.” This energization stage provides the motivation to find solutions and regain control over our time management at work.


  • Our explanatory style, or how we interpret events, determines whether we’re optimists or pessimists.
  • Anyone can learn to be optimistic and reap the associated benefits of better health, improved relationships, and career success.
  • The ABCDE model is a practical tool for shifting our mindset towards optimism.
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