Book review: Learned optimism

Of course I’ve been reading while I was on holidays, and it fit very well that I was reading about optimism. Martin Seligman has long researched optimism and positive psychology, and Learned Optimism is the popular summary of his work.

But why be optimistic? Shouldn’t you just be a realist? Well, here are a few good reasons for being an optimist:
* Optimists lead better lives
* Optimists live longer
* Optimists are healthier
* Optimists do better at work and in school
* Optimists have fewer depressions
* Optimists have more friends and better social lives

And did you know that:
* The most optimistic candidate has won nine out of ten american presidential elections from 1948 to 1984
* The most optimistic sports teams outperform the pessimistic ones
* An insurance company that started hiring based on optimism rather than skill got much better salesmen out of it

Seligman argues that the flip side of optimism is pessimism or helplessness – the feeling that nothing you can do will matter, you are powerless. He created a ground-breaking experiment which was first performed with dogs back in the sixties. Three dogs went through each experiment. The first dog was given electrical shocks which stopped whenever it pressed a panel with its nose. It got shocks, but had the power to stop them. The second dog got shocks whenever the first dog got them. This means that it received exactly the same amount and duration of electrical shocks as the first dog, but it had no chance to affect this. The third dog got no shocks. The next day each dog is placed in a special “shuttlebox”. Here the dog is given an electrical shock that it can easily escape by jumping over a low barrier. And the results were, that dog number one (who’d recieved shocks it could turn of itself) quickly jumped over the barrier. So did dog number three that had gotten no shocks. But dog number two just lay there, feeling powerless to change its conditions. It had learned helplessness.

This experiment has since been repeated in many different forms on many other animals (including humans), and the results show that we learn helplessnes extremely quickly.

But the good news is, that we can also learn optimism. Seligman introduces a tool in the book which will let us challenge the pessimistic thoughts and assumptions that many of us have running through our heads at frequent intervals.

One of the most interesting chapter in the book concerns depression. Depression is spreading like craxy today and it’s even starting to hit children. Seligman argues, that the negative thinking that depressed people experience is not a symptom of depression – it IS the depression. Consequently, if you can change your thinking you can cure the depression. And studies have proven that optimistic people experience fewer and milder depressions.

I highly recommend this book. It contains numerous deep insights on what goes on in our brains and how it affects our moods. Just the chapter on depression is worth the price of the book. An excellent book from a man who is obviously a master of his field. Also, the book is entertaining and at times very funny.

29 thoughts on “Book review: Learned optimism”

  1. You all would have been TERRIFIC in Germany in the ’30’s. The end, after all, justifies the means…the well-worn picklock of all despots. The whole canine experimental history absolutely sickens me. I hope that some enlightened society way down the line reads all these comments someday and wonders just how people like yourselves could have so overlooked the wanton cruelty and specieism inherent herein. May the creator, wherever he/she may be found to be, have mercy on all of us.

  2. Optimism is much more than just a positive attitude. It involves many skills and strategies that enable you to shift from the common negative or pessimistic perspective to the polar opposite – positive or optimist view point. The approach is to adapt a new paradigm that helps you identify exactly what is the polar opposite of any negative emotion or attitude, then it is easy to shift in a positive direction.

    Think positive, you can always find the opposite to bad emotions or attitudes. For more help go to my website:

  3. If you think positive you build your own reality.
    This is the “secret” of live.
    If you see everything negative, your live would become more an more negative, but if you would think positive- everthing around you gets a positive trend, and then the trends implement a new future.

    Yes i know it , its realy hard to understand your emotions, but if you want to know what you´re thinking, try to understand the emotions and you would get a change in life.

    Take my advice!

  4. I embrace the whole idea of positive psychology movement and commend Seligman’s work. What distresses me terribly, however, is that every time I see anything on Seligman I have to read again of the dogs who were subjected to painful electric shocks as part of his research. As an animal lover I find it absolutley incredible that a person who has dedicated his life to researching happiness can treat innocent and helpless creatures inthis way. Torture and happiness surely cannot go together? Your website says you make people happy – you really do. Well you have made me very sad.

  5. Hello, Very good article. I will continue to pursue this article, as it is written is very interesting. Since we are interpreted very much on good information. Best regards :-)

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