Learned Optimism, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Learned optimism is a psychological trait, first coined by noted psychologist Martin Seligman, that characterizes a general feeling of hope and positivity toward the future. The trait first entered literature with Seligman’s 1990 book, Learned Optimism. According to Seligman (1990), optimistic people achieve more than pessimistic people, are physically healthier. Those who are not optimistic tend to experience higher rates of depression.

Key to Seligman’s definition of optimism is the manner in which individuals explain situations that occur in their lives, or their explanatory style (Seligman, 1990). According to Seligman, optimists and pessimists differ in the way they view the permanence, pervasiveness, hope, and personalization of the events that occur in their lives. Optimists tend to believe that negative experiences are temporary and they will bounce back quickly from these events. Pessimistic people view positive experiences as temporary. Optimistic people also tend to look at negative events as isolated instances, while pessimistic people feel one negative experience means they are complete failures. Optimists have more hope than pessimists and feel negative events are caused by temporary occurrences. Finally, optimists tend to blame outside influences for negative events and personalize positive ones. Pessimists express the opposite viewpoint.

While optimists and pessimists differ in their views, Seligman believes that pessimists can learn to be optimists. Seligman developed a method for teaching optimism, using Albert Ellis’ ABC model of restructuring. First, Seligman has individuals examine the adversity, identify the belief behind the adversity, and then the consequence. This method helps pessimists break down their thought processes and discover misguided or inaccurate thoughts. Seligman also adds two steps, including disputing the negative thought and then reevaluating the situation in a more realistic way. Seligman’s method for teaching optimism and eliminating negative thoughts has helped thousands of people recovers from depression, anxiety, and other negative mental conditions. Much research has expounded on Seligman’s original model, and this theory still makes its way into psychology and counseling journals at a high frequency.

Article Review

One of the areas in which Seligman’s model has influenced is infant-child psychology and development. For example, Baldwin, Kenney, and Armata (2008) conducted a study to explore the dispositional optimism on levels of stress, resiliency, and physical markers of stress in mothers. Using a sample of 37 mothers, these researchers had mothers submitted a saliva sample at various times and then complete a survey regarding optimism and stress. Results demonstrated that mothers who exhibited greater optimism demonstrated less distress and a higher ability to recover from stress. The results from the saliva samples were not significant.

According to Baldwin and colleagues (2008), a great deal of research has revealed the relationship between stress, resiliency and immune system function. While questionnaires can help portray and individual’s stress levels, these researches explain that the immunoglobulin in saliva helps indicate how the body’s cells are working together to fight disease. Authors also used the Recent Life Changes Questionnaire, The Beck Depression Inventory-II, and the Resilience Scale for Adults to measure self-reported stress.

While the saliva results were not significant, the data supporting the role of optimism in fighting stress and promoting health were strong in supporting Baldwin and colleagues’ (2008) hypothesis. These authors conclude that it would be wise to encourage optimism and teach Seligman’s ABCDE method of learned optimism in mothers. Healthy mothers can, in turn, promote great physical and emotional health in infants and children. These authors note that caution must be noted in interpreting their findings because of the small sample employed. However, results are encouraging.

Program Review

One internet source regarding learned optimism, Future Visions, highlights Seligman’s fundamental ABC change model for acquiring learned optimism. The site outlines Seligman’s ABC model and discusses the difference between authentic and artificial happiness. Included in this program are steps toward identifying 10 common self-defeating beliefs, 13 forms of distorted thinking, 10 common irrational thoughts, and 5 common thinking fallacies. Examples of these thinking errors include the idea of being perfect, excessive focus on the self, looking at situations with an all-or-none viewpoint.

Like all learned optimism programs, Future Visions emphasizes mastering the disputing and evaluating steps. With the disputation stage, Future Visions encourages people to always ask themselves what is the evidence for their beliefs and to develop other possible explanations for these beliefs. Similarly, individuals can improve their ability to construct rational, positive thoughts that counter the irrational, negative ones.

Future Visions’ 6-step model runs fairly parallel to Seligman’s (1990) original model, with some slight variations. For example, their final step is known as “Energization,” as opposed to Seligman’s “Evaluation.” Seligman does not outline the extensive thinking errors that Future Vision does, and Future Vision draws on a variety of psychologists to identify such errors. Their model is believed to work in a very short period of time and can last for several months. Future Vision encourages individuals to reintroduce their learned optimism training periodically to keep their ABCDE skills sharp. This model has been used with a wide variety of clients, in both individual and group setting. However, Future Vision’s specific model has yet to be empirically tested in experimental research.

Applying Learned Optimism

Learned optimism is a skill or trait that all individuals can, and likely do, apply to their daily lives. The research supporting the advantages of acquiring learned optimism is clear, and nearly any person could use the ABCDE restructuring process to improve their daily happiness.

As the aforementioned study (i.e., Baldwin et al., 2008) demonstrated, learned optimism can be applied in a variety of fields. Infant development is a highly delicate process, with children particularly malleable and susceptible to external influences at this point in their lives. Research has demonstrated that children are very perceptive to subtle changes in their mothers’ moods and attitudes. Expecting mothers would be advised to engage in learned optimism training whether they feel they need it or not. According to Baldwin and colleagues, an increasing number of mothers are experiencing postpartum depression, and to a much greater severity than in years past. Learned optimism can help these mothers prevent depression from occurring, as well as address depression when it arises. By engaging in such training, they are in a more psychologically adept frame of mind to act as mothers. Similarly, expecting fathers experience depression as children are born, and would benefit from learned optimism training as well. In Seligman’s (2001) Handbook of Positive Psychology, he discusses methods for developing learned optimism for a variety of individuals. Because of the simplicity of the ABCDE method, almost any person can develop learned optimism with ease. Peterson (2000) reports that positive psychology and learned optimism research is gaining momentum and helping a greater demographic of people each year.

Reference

Baldwin, D. R., Kennedy, D. L., & Armata, P. (2008). Short communication: De-stressing mommy: Amelioverative association with dispositional optimism and resilency. Stress and Health, 24: 393-400.

Future Vision (N.D.). Six-Step Change Model. Futurevisions.org. Retrieved December 4, 2011, from: http://www.futurevisions.org/eq_sixsteps_1.htm

Peterson, C. (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist. 55:1, 44-55.

Selgiman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned Optimism. New York: Random House.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2001). Positive psychology, positive prevention, and positive therapy. In: Snyder, C. R. & Lopez, S. J. (Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

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