Learned Optimism

Book notes

This is my summary and notes for the book “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” written by the American psychologist Martin Seligman.

By default, you can consider that the ideas under the section “Notes” are either the author’s own ideas or my interpretation of them. When writing my own thoughts and ideas, or when I am expanding on the author’s ideas, I enclose them in braces “{this is my own thought on the subject}”.

See goodreads reviews or buy the book.

Seligman is a Penn State Ph. D in Psychology. He is one of the main proponents of “positive psychology”, which is psychology studies focused on “positive” topics instead of “negative” ones (eg. research focused on quality of life instead of illness; or why people succeed instead of why people fail). It is psychology focused on researching how to promote positive outcomes instead of merely avoiding or reverting negative ones. It can be considered a reaction against psychology focused mainly on mental illness and deviant behavior. In fact, he has written the book “Character Strengths and Virtues” as a counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Learned Optimism covers the author’s ideas on the concepts of helplessness, pessimism and optimism, based on extensive scientific research made by him and other people.

Notes (Chapters 1 to 3)

Pessimism and optimism are two ways of looking at life. Pessimists are more likely to suffer from depression and to be low achievers. The author sees pessimism and optimism as learnable skills or changeable habits as opposed to being inherent traits.

Helplessness is when our actions have no noticeable effects. A newborn can’t decide to do anything. At some point, he learns to cry, and that’s all he is able to do that has any impact on his life (eg. when he cries his parents might show up to check on him). In life, we go from being totally helpless as babies to having increasing control over our lives as we grow. As adults, we can take infinite decisions that all have some impact on our lives and our future. In our last years, the degree in which we control our lives starts to decrease, possibly climbing back to levels similar to when we were newborns as our physical and cognitive capabilities decline.

If someone went to you at work and suddenly accused you of stealing, how would you react? The natural reaction would be to deny, argue, and discuss, possibly furiously. If you were to be fired for stealing something when you did not do it, you would probably get mad at the injustice and possibly do what you can to repair the damage or undo it. You might even seek revenge. You can reach out to superior people, you can sue the company and the people who treated you badly. Instead, people who think themselves helpless and are overly pessimistic might watch things roll out passively, waiting for others to decide their fate. They might even accept it, remembering that times from their past when they cheated in an exam or did anything immoral, and see the present situation as just a delayed punishment for their past sins.

Psychology research used to be based on considering people as pure products of their environments. Little thought was given to how people’s own actions and thoughts could affect their minds and personal outcomes. Freud believed that everything was the fault of your mom and dad, and that you secretly want to fuck or/and kill each of them. Skinner and his behaviorism psychology believed that behavior was molded mainly by external reinforcement. Ethologists used genetic influences to explain behavior. Others viewed human actions as a pure product of biological drives and needs.

Theories in psychology started to change from focusing on the environmental effects on people’s lives to start focusing on the effects of individual actions (thoughts, behaviors, preferences, decisions). {This was part of a bigger change in society: changes in the labour market and the development of new technologies increased the amount of choices people could make, and the effects of their choices on their lives became apparent. Such societal change coincided with changes in the rate of depression. Several studies have demonstrated that people suffer from depression at alarmingly higher rates when compared to people from decades ago. The age of the self is the age of innovation, new technologies, control, personal freedom, but also the age of depression, suicide, the glorification of appearances, and the reward of confidence over real competence. For a majority of people nowadays appearing to be right is better and preferred than being right.}

{Society has changed in the past decades. Before people had god, community, homeland and patriotism, family; in other words, communal values. Society has shifted to value individualism over community. Our lives changed from communal activities to individual activities. Not all of that has completely gone away, but some of them will shortly and overall their importance has decreased greatly.}

Depression has traditionally been explained by two main theories: psychoanalytic and biomedical. The psychoanalytic view is based on Freud’s ideas and claims that depression is anger against ourselves and based on mistakes, blame, and guilt over our past actions. The biomedical model explains depression as a consequence of chemical imbalances in the brain. As such, it seeks to treat depression with medication or treatments such as shock therapy. Although there is enough evidence to suggest that medical imbalances can cause depression, and many medications have good effects on treating depression, it doesn’t explain the whole issue. There are different degrees of depression, and traditional treatments such as medication cannot treat cases of mild depression, even though their effects can be as devastating in the long-term as the severe cases of depression.

There is also a promotion in helplessness when people must rely on medication to have a “normal” life, and getting their hands on these medications can only be made legally through the goodwill of some people. The author argues that other than a minority of cases, depression is usually not caused by chemical imbalances that can only be reasonably treated through medication. It is actually some kind of “severe low mood” that arises from the way we view and explain things that happen in our lives and how we react to them. According to him, pessimist beliefs are one of the core root causes of depression.

Theory of personal control, or Learned helplessness theory

Learned helplessness is learning to develop a quitting response. This theory has been developed by the author and other researchers through many studies. The studies demonstrated that dogs can develop a sense of helplessness, in other words, they understood when their actions were futile. That sense of helplessness transferred to different contexts.

One of the studies separated dogs into two groups. Both of them were subjected to physical pain through electrical shocks. For one of them, the pain was random and there was no way for the dogs to make it stop. The other group was also subjected to physical pain, but there was a way to stop the shocks through a physical mechanism that the dogs were able to learn. After that, the two groups were put in another place and also given shocks there. This time, to stop the pain all they had to do was to jump a simple barrier and go to the place where the shocks were not applied. The dogs from the second group quickly learned how to jump the barrier and avoid the pain. The dogs from the first group did not even try to stop the pain, having learned in another context that their actions wouldn’t affect their outcome, even though that was not the case anymore.

“With regard to learned helplessness, Steve and I believed the dogs were just lying there because they had learned that nothing they did mattered—and they therefore expected that no actions of theirs would matter in the future. Once they formed this expectation, they would no longer engage in action.”

The experiment was repeated with some variations, and similar experiments were performed in humans as well, all pointing to the existence of “learned helplessness” in both animals and humans.

The results from the author’s research challenged the traditional ideas in psychology at the time that was controlled by the behaviorists. This new group that challenged the behaviorists are called cognitivists. It took time and many experiments to counter their objections and become an accepted idea. Behaviorists put up a fight and engaged in what is commonly known as “adding epicycles”. This phrase came from the act of astronomers who defended that the sun traveled around the Earth to “add epicycles”, or small circles within a greater circle, in order to explain and defend their idea against increasingly observations and facts pointing to the Earth traveling around the Sun.

“The phrase “adding epicycles” came to be applied to scientists in any field who, having trouble defending a tottering thesis, desperately postulate unlikely subtheses in hopes of buttressing it.”

{Helplessness is such a terrible feeling that the CIA developed their own “learned helplessness” program in which detainees were subjected to persistent torture to make detainees develop a sense of helplessness and start giving information.}

Explanatory style

Explanatory style is a way to assess how people explain to themselves and to the world why events happen. If you won the lottery, or if you are promoted, or if your crush rejects you, how do you tend to explain those events? Of course, each case is different and will have a different explanation, but there are some underlying patterns and motivations that can be detected and categorized. These explanatory styles can be used to assess how optimist or pessimist a person is, and also how likely she is to suffer from depression or helplessness.

There are three dimensions for a person’s explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Each dimension has an optimistic and a pessimistic style.


Permanence is about how people view the persistence of events. The words always and never are related to a permanent style, while words like sometimes and lately and other qualifiers are related to a temporary style. A person with a permanent style tends to view event consequences as long-lasting and permanent, and they explain them this way. For instance, saying “I missed this appointment because I was occupied doing something else” indicates a temporary explanation style, while saying “I missed this appointment because I am bad at remembering my schedule” indicates a permanent explanation style. Saying “I forgot to submit my homework last week because I was busy watching Netflix” indicates a temporary style while saying “I forgot to submit my homework last week because I am always busy watching Netflix” or “I always forget to submit my homework because I watch too much Netflix” indicates a permanent style.

Failure makes everyone at least momentarily helpless. It’s like a punch in the stomach. It hurts, but the hurt goes away—for some people almost instantly. … For others, the hurt lasts; it seethes, it roils, it congeals into a grudge. … They remain helpless for days or perhaps months, even after only small setbacks. After major defeats they may never come back.

The pessimist permanent style means that the person believes bad events have permanent causes (I was bad at X situation because I am always bad at Y), while the optimist permanent style means that the person believes that good events have permanent causes (I did well at X because I am good at Y). So, you can have a tendency to explain bad events in either permanent or temporary ways, and a separated tendency to explain good events in either permanent or temporary ways.

People who believe good events have permanent causes try even harder after they succeed. People who see temporary reasons for good events may give up even when they succeed, believing success was a fluke.

Explaining bad events using permanent style (pessimist signal)

  • “She never talks to me”
  • “I never set time to study”
  • “I never do things I plan to do”
  • “You always ignore me”

Explaining bad events using temporary style (optimist signal)

  • “She haven’t been talking to me lately”
  • “I haven’t set up time to study in the past month”
  • “Lately, I haven’t done things I have decided to do”
  • “You ignore me when you are not in a good mood”

Explaining good events using permanent style (optimist signal)

  • “I was luycky that day”
  • “I studied hard”
  • “The other teams played bad”

Explaining good events using temporary style (pessimist signal)

  • “I am lucky”
  • “I am intelligent”
  • “My rival is no good”

Pervasiveness: Specific vs. Universal

Permanence is about time. Pervasiveness is about space.

How does one event in your life affect other events? If something good happens in one area of your life, does it permeates to other areas? For instance, if you study hard and do incredibly well in an exam, does this give you confidence and energy to pursue other things, maybe asking someone special out or taking a new hobby? At the same time, how do bad events affect your overall life? If something bad happens in some area of your life, does it affect the others? If you are fired from your job and start feeling unaccomplished and incompetent, do you also start doubting whether you are a good parent to your child or a good lover to your partner, even though the setback at work did not affect and is not related to those other areas?

People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one part of their lives yet march stalwartly on in the others.

Explaining bad events using universal style (pessimist signal):

  • “All bosses are terrible”
  • “I am ugly”
  • “University is useless”

Explaining bad events using specific style (optimist signal):

  • “My current boss is terrible”
  • “This person thinks I am ugly”
  • “My University is useless”

Explaining good events using specific style (pessimist signal):

  • “I am good at math”
  • “I did a good work at this project”

Explaining good events using universal style (optimistic signal):

  • “I am good at things I do”
  • “The projects I work succeed”

Personalization: Internal vs. External

Do you blame things on yourself or on external factors? Do you blame bad things on external factors, and attribute good things to yourself? Or the other way around? When we blame ourselves we internalize them, when we blame external factors we externalize them.

People who blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem as a consequence. They think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable. People who blame external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. On the whole, they like themselves better than people who blame themselves do. Low self-esteem usually comes from an internal style for bad events.

Explaining bad events using internal style (low self-steem signal):

  • “I am dumb”
  • “I haven’t study hard”
  • “I am not talented at X”

Explaining bad events using external style (high self-steem signal):

  • “You are dumb”
  • “I did not receive educational opportunities”
  • “I am not lucky at X”

Explaining good events using internal style (high self-steem signal):

  • “I played well or I worked well”
  • “I studied and worked hard to achieve things”

Explaining good events using external style (low self-steem signal):

  • “The team played well or The team worked well”
  • “My parents provided me with good opportunities”


Hope has largely been the province of preachers, of politicians, and of hucksters. The concept of explanatory style brings hope into the laboratory, where scientists can dissect it in order to understand how it works.

Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our explanatory style: pervasiveness and permanence. Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope: Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation. On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.

People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure, both for a long time and across situations.

{It seems this is the famous half full/half empty glass thinking.}

Explanatory style test

{It seems Seligman has developed many kinds of psychological tests and I couldn’t pinpoint exactly which one is part of the book.}

My results for this test are:

  • 6/8 on “Permanent bad” score, indicating that I am “quite pessimistic” in the pessimistic permanence dimension
  • 4/8 in “Permanent good” score, indicating that I am “average” in the optimistic permanence dimension
  • 4/8 in “Pervasiveness bad” score, indicating that I am “average” in the pessimistic pervasiveness dimension
  • 2/8 in “Pervasiveness good” score, indicating that I am “very pessimistic” in the optimistic pervasiveness dimension
  • 7/8 in “Personalization bad” score, indicating that I have “very low self-steam”
  • 4/8 in “Personalization good” score, indicating that I am “average” in terms of optimistic personalization

These scores can be used to calculate aggregate scores:

  • 9/16 in Hope, indicating that I am “moderately hopeless”
  • 10/24 in Good score, indicating “great pessimism”
  • -6 when calculating (Good minus Bad score), indicating that I am “very pessimistic”

{We all have the tendency to rationalize and support whatever results come up from these types of tests. Who wants to waste 20 minutes of their lives doing some test like this and then say “what a stupid test, it got all wrong” when you can just formulate evidence and arguments to support whatever result comes up, as long as the result pleases you somehow? That considered, I found that this was an interesting result. I do have a tendency of isolating good events to their own areas, which is indicated by the “pervasiveness good” low score. I also have a high tendency to personalize bad events, indicated by the low “personalization bad” score.}

Some notes about explanatory styles

{This test indicates that certain behaviors are good in some situations and allegedly bad in other situations. According to the test, it is good to take responsibility for your own actions when good events happen, but the best thing to do when bad events happen would be to blame them on someone else. This is an interesting insight because it is not about what is moral or the correct thing to do, just what kind of explanatory style brings positive or negative individual psychological outcomes. The author touches on this point. For instance, he advocates for people to have an internal style for bad events because that’s the right thing to do and that’s more valuable in the long run, even at the potential cost of some higher psychological suffering or the need to compensate for it in other dimensions to not let this affect their whole lives.}