The concept of “Learned Optimism” was originated by Martin Seligman in his 1990 book. He states that people can be trained to be optimists by adopting new ways of handling adversity, and that these optimists are happier people who achieve more life success. In related academic research, it was found that children with the quality of “grit” (the ability to persevere through obstacles when completing goals) were more likely to succeed. Similarly, most successful entrepreneurs attribute their triumph to perseverance and hard work over intelligence, wealth and influential relationships.
Seligman starts by defining the three traits of pessimists, and provides tools for them to reprogram their behavior (essentially learning to be optimists). These traits are:
1. Permanence. Pessimistic people think that bad events in their life are permanent. Optimists on the other hand view setbacks as temporary and tend to bounce back quickly.
2. Pervasiveness. Pessimists see small failures in one aspect of their life as failure in life as a whole. Optimists can isolate failures as “one-offs” that don’t impact their broader life.
3. Personalization. Pessimists blame themselves for all of their life challenges. Optimists blame external factors. It is important to note here that optimists don’t deflect blame for mistakes – they are willing to accept responsibility – it’s just that they don’t personalize these mistakes to their inner being.
Seligman defines the ultimate response to adversity by an optimist: “What happened to me today was just some bad luck (not personal), and frankly a small setback (not permanent), for this one tiny area of my life (not pervasive).”
So how can you teach learned optimism to you child? Start with small behaviors. When there is a setback, listen to them and then gently debate their concepts of permanence, pervasiveness and personalization, challenging some of the negative views they may have. When they have moments of negative thinking, get them to write down their feelings in a journal. When things are better, ask them to reread the journal entry. They will be surprised at how negatively they viewed the situation, how their fears didn’t materialize, and how things worked out in the end.
Of course, if you find a serious behavioral problem or suspect depression, seek out professional right away.
Learned optimism can have a powerful impact on your child’s life. Get them on the road to positive thinking by understanding permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. Try out our “Confidence and Manners” worksheets (in the grade 3-4 emotional intelligence section). And as always, write to us about your experiences!