Release year: 2006

Author: Martin Seligman

Link to my handwritten notes

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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.

Are you a pessimist? How is that impacting your life? According to the author of this book, it’s probably impacting it a lot.

The foundational idea behind Learned Optimism is that the way we explain our reality is the root cause of the actions we pose and the choices we make in our daily lives (this reminded me of Crucial Conversations ). For example, if you eat a chocolate bar two weeks into a no-sugar-added diet, how you rationalize this “failure” will massively impact the outcome. If you think, “I’m so weak, I can’t even resist a chocolate bar. I’m pathetic,” you might eat that entire chocolate cake sitting in your freezer while watching the news. If, on the other hand, you say to yourself, “I stumbled on my diet, yes, and this is proof of how hard this challenge of healthy eating is. I have managed to reach my goals flawlessly for the past 2 weeks. I am proud of myself. I am improving,” you have far better chances at staying the course.

According to the theory, how pessimistic a thought is can be measured on three dimensions: how personal, pervasive, and permanent it is. Thus, thinking “I never do anything right” in the face of adversity is a very pessimistic thought. On the other hand, thinking “This is a great opportunity for learning” is very optimistic, because it is external, limited to the situation, and temporary.

It comes without surprise that optimists lead better, fuller, healthier lives on average (the author has statistics to back up that claim). The question then becomes, how can we exercise our brain to start thinking differently? I believe this is where the book truly shines. The suggested framework is called ABCDE:

  • Adversity
  • Belief
  • Consequence
  • Disputation
  • Energization

When you face adversity (e.g. someone notices a mistake you made in your work), your brain will react by unearthing a belief it holds deeply (e.g. “I have no idea what I’m doing."). The consequence will be an emotional state that often makes you lose control of the situation (e.g. “I started feeling sick and felt paralyzed, I couldn’t complete my tasks.").

The first step is to notice these dynamics happening in your head. It’s difficult because it requires tuning in to your internal dialogue, which we too often learn to push aside, but it can be done. Personally, since starting to read this book, I paid more attention to my mental thoughts in the advent of adversities and I was shocked at how vividly pessimistic, even sarcastic, my thoughts were. They were truly making me sick, and explained why so often I would choose “flight” instead of “fight” in periods of crisis. There was a moment of realization on a walk home from work where I had to stop and ponder, “Is this really how I’m talking to myself? This can’t continue.” All my life, I thought I was approaching life as a realist, when in fact I was merely a pessimist. It felt like something clicked in my mind: no wonder I had so little grit for most of my life if I had these lingering, toxic beliefs and thoughts in the back of my mind.

So I started practicing disputation, which involves disproving pessimistic thoughts by searching for evidence that suggests my catastrophizing thoughts were overreactions. In a sense, I began appreciating that reality was more complex than my initial impressions suggested, and made me better at accepting ambiguity. The final step, energization, comes naturally: after disputing a pessimistic thought, you naturally feel empowered. Fear fades away, and you feel like you start seeing clearly once more.

If there’s one quote to remember from this book, for me it is:

Adversity is just the beginning of a challenging sequence that often leads to success.

The book goes even further and nuances instances where pessimism might be better than optimism, and explains that learned optimism is the ability of choosing when to dispute our thoughts or not. The goal, as always, is to achieve the right balance. Still, I think you will find a clear path to deep mental change by simply starting to analyze your inner dialogue to identify how permanent, pervasive and personal your explanations of reality are.

Félix rating:

⭐ Star quotes:

  1. (p. 4) 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.
  2. (p. 7) Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues.
  3. (p. 7) Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling.
  4. (p. 8) Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last 20 years is that individuals can change the way they think.
  5. (p. 15) ⭐ See events as successes or failures of personal control.
  6. (p. 72) Love comes rarely in life, and if you waste your life mooning over its all too ordinary absence, you are bringing on your own depression. You are living under a tyranny of shoulds. Stop ‘should-ing’ on yourself!
  7. (p. 74) Emotion comes directly from what we think:
    • Think “I am in danger” and you feel anxiety.
    • Think “I am being trespassed against” and you feel danger.
    • Think “Loss” and you feel sadness.
  8. (p. 75) How you think about your problems, including depression itself, will either relieve depression or aggravate it.
  9. (p. 75) If your explanatory style is optimistic, your depression will be halted.
  10. (p. 77) There is one particularly self-defeating way to think: making personal, permanent and pervasive explanations for bad events. People who have this most pessimistic of all styles are likely, once they fail, to have the symptoms of learned helplessness for a long time and across many endeavours, and to lose self-esteem.
  11. (p. 78) A recipe for severe depression is preexisting pessimism encountering failure.
  12. (p. 81) Although drugs and cognitive therapy both relieve depression, they work in quite different ways. Drugs seem to be activators, they push the patient up and out, but they do not make the world look any brighter. Cognitive therapy changes the way you look at things, and this new, optimistic style gets you up and around.
  13. (p. 87) People who believe themselves stupid, rather than uneducated, don’t take action to improve their minds.
  14. (p. 88) The belief in self-improvement is a prophecy just as self-fulfilling as the old belief that character could not be changed.
  15. (p. 89) What we consciously think is what mainly determines how we feel.
  16. (p. 104) Optimism matters because is produces persistence.
  17. (p. 201) Human ethology is a branch of biology that deals with observing people in the natural environment and noting in great detail what they do.
  18. (p. 211, 217) ABCDE:
    • Adversity
    • Belief
    • Consequences
    • Disputation
    • Energization
  19. (p. 221) The most convincing way of disputing a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect.
  20. (p. 234) Childhood pessimism is the parent of adult pessimism.
  21. (p. 258) It is crucial to learn an applicant’s optimism level and fit him into the niche in which they can be most effective. [Some fields are better for optimists, and other for pessimisms, see written notes p. 11-12 for examples)
  22. (p. 259) ⭐ Adversity is just the beginning of a challenging sequence that often leads to success.
  23. (p. 259) The first thing we do when we encounter adversity is try to explain it. The explanations with which we interpret adversity to ourselves critically affect what we do next.
  24. (p. 286) The epidemic of depression stems from the much-noted rise in individualism and the decline in the commitment to the common good.
  25. (p. 292) You can choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, or more achievement, or better health is the issue. But you can also choose not to use it, when you judge that clear sight or owning up is called for.
  26. (p. 295) How is it possible for a depressed person both to believe he is to blame for the tragedies in his life and to believe he is helpless?