Friday, January 3, 2014





When I go to the gym today (or maybe tomorrow), I expect the parking lot to be full. This time of year, a lot of people resolve to improve their lives. We want to get healthy and get rid of bad habits. Unfortunately, within a few weeks or months optimism wanes. And many fall back into old ways.


Years ago, Martin Seligman studied depression in animals. His research seemed to suggest that animals “gave up” as if they learned to be helpless. When Seligman and others examined how people thought about circumstances, they detected pessimistic thinking. And in contrast, researchers found positive thinking in others. Seligman has been instrumental in the development of positive psychology and has become well known for his work on learned optimism.


What do we know about learned optimism and life? Here’s a summary from Snyder, Lopez, and Pedrotti’s book on Positive Psychology. People who face life with an optimistic view experience
  1. More productive work records
  2. Greater satisfaction in their relationships
  3. More effective coping with the stress of life
  4. Superior physical health
  5. Better academic performance
  6. Superior athletic performance
  7. Less vulnerability to depression


Researchers find that optimists and pessimists view life’s challenges in different ways. They make different attributions about the causes of bad outcomes and good outcomes. Optimists distance themselves from the negative and connect to the positive. 

When faced with a bad experience, optimists do three things:
1. Link bad outcomes to the actions of other people or events (external attributions)
2. Interpret bad events as unlikely to happen again (low probability attribution)
3. Describe a bad outcome as specific to one situation (specific attribution)

In contrast, pessimists respond as follows:
1. Link bad outcomes to their personal actions (internal attribution)
2. Interpret bad events as typical (constant or stable attribution)
3. Describe a bad outcome as just another example of a negative life (global attribution)

People can change not only their current thinking but their past- well sort of. Dr. Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia has studied how people improve their life functioning when they spend time editing their life stories. When people are encouraged to re-interpret past life events in different ways, their future functioning improves. You have probably had the experience of wishing you had not said or done something or wished you could erase an old memory. It turns out that when people write about their troubling memories and do some editing, they are able to be freed from the negativity. Research indicates that story editing works to help people change the way they see the world and this change in perspective leads to long-term changes in behavior.

Optimism and Religion

Turn on the TV and you will find Christian ministers offering encouragement and words of hope. And you will find other preachers listing the evils in the world and warn of destruction. In tough times, many people turn to their faith to cope. In fact, psychological scientist, Kenneth Pargament has written extensively about religion and coping in his classic book, The Psychology of Religion and Coping. Pargament reviews a great deal of research. In some cases, religious people find their faith helpful-- especially when life’s situations seem beyond their control. Others find their faith insufficient and end up feeling worse or even switching to another faith or no faith at all.

Perhaps it is not surprising to find that people interpret life events in different ways when drawing upon their religious traditions. The biblical story of Job illustrates a number of negative attributions offered to Job by his wife and friends when he struggled to cope with great personal disasters. As readers, we see another perspective. There is a spiritual backdrop to the story—events beyond Job’s control. Bad things do happen to good people.

I have often heard disparaging remarks about Christians, especially young Christians, who seem full of joy and spout bumper-sticker-like slogans about God’s goodness and how they can “do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13).” Similarly, highly intelligent friends and religious scholars attack those preachers who seem to offer platitudes for life instead of deep theological insights. Years ago, similar disdain could be heard about Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking; Audio clips) or Robert Schuller (Possibility Thinking). 

Yet many continue to benefit from the messages of hope and optimism and such publications as Guideposts. Indeed, some research shows that the poor and needy often use religion to cope with life’s problems. People seek hope. And hope is linked to optimism. I suspect that the popularity of preachers that offer messages of hope and optimism will continue. Whether shallow or deep, optimistic speakers are meeting a human need.

Perhaps the idea of another perspective is what links religious-based optimism and religious-based pessimism to the growing psychological research on optimism. Perhaps we could all ask, How does our faith link to optimism or pessimism?


Trying to think positively about negative life events can sound silly or even perverse to a person who is depressed and mired in negative thinking—especially if they recently experienced serious losses. To a realist a moderate degree of optimism is optimal for a productive life (Baumeister, 1989).  I have some ideas that may help build optimism. But they won't cure depression. People with depression need professional care.
or a pessimist, optimists can be annoying. Yet there is research suggesting that

Seven ways to build a more optimistic approach to life:

1. Read stories of success. Meditate on stories that show how people overcame challenges in their lives. If you are spiritual, draw upon the stories of faith in your tradition. Many are inspired by those who overcome a tragic life event.

2. Avoid taking excessive responsibility for bad outcomes. Consider the role other people and natural events play in the bad experiences of life. If you are Christian, remember that not all bad things are the result of personal sin or even the evil of those around you. Most things in life have multiple causes.

3. Edit your negative life stories. Learn from the work of Tim Wilson that small changes in our perspective on old life stories can improve current functioning. Why not edit an old script today?

4. Balance exposure to negativity in movies and music with entertainment that is uplifting and offers encouragement.

5. Limit exposure to negativity on social media feeds--and in person. Stop flooding your mind with messages of hate and pessimism. Avoid the trap of thinking a particular leader or other person is 100% evil and can do no good just because some people don’t like some aspect of their politics or social values.

6. Value the concerns of pessimists—especially the intelligent people who can see downside risks. But don’t ignore a focus on possibilities. Pessimists do offer protection from foolhardy plans but they may not always be right. And pessimists may be blind to possibilities.

7. Create an optimistic cue. People need reminders. Learning a new habit—a new way of thinking—requires some effort. Changing habits takes time. Place an object in your car, home, or office. Choose something that will remind you to think of positive outcomes when inclined to dwell on the negative. Perhaps a picture of children or grandchildren will inspire you to think of the future. A photo of an amazing sunset, mountain scene, or favorite awe inspiring waterfall will lift you out of the mundane challenges in an office, home, or routine. An object or gift from a loved one or close friend can boost your spirits. And people of faith can find inspiring quotes to help look beyond personal limitations.

Developing optimism is not a cure-all. People with depression often need professional help. Medication and psychotherapy do help people with depression. Attempts to develop optimism that fail may just make things worse for people with depression when those attempts fail. So, if you know someone who is depressed, do encourage them to get professional help.


Video: Martin Seligman on optimism

Baumeister, R. (1989). The optimal margin of illusion. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8, 176–189. doi:10.1521/jscp.1989.8.2.176

Pargament. K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, practice. New York: Guilford.
Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S.J., & Pedrotti, J.T. (2011). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths (Second edition). Washington, DC, Sage.

For more videos on positive psychology, see my Positive Psychology Playlist on YouTube

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