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Summary of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman

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The Learned Optimism unfolds as story of how Martin Seligman’s understanding grew towards what is now known as positive psychology. There are some key concepts that click together, such as explanatory style (i.e. Optimism or Pessimism), helplessness and depression.

Helplessness, or a belief that there is nothing that you can do to change your circumstances appear to be strongly linked with depression. This is can be the downside of pessimistic thinking which optimists do not appear to have.

“Learned helplessness could be cured by showing the subject his own actions would now work.”

Pessimist strength that optimists do not have is however the more accurate sense of reality. It appears optimists are disillusioned, which can lead to trouble when left unchallenged. As example see year 2008 financial crisis, many banks and financial institutions were run by optimists alone and they were not taking action based on reality.

Each of the explanatory style has their faults. Optimists tend to think that “bad” events are only temporary while good events are permanent, where pessimists think that the bad events are permanent and good only temporary.

“What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism— optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows.”

To achieve this, certainly pessimists can learn to become optimistic. This happens through set of cognitive skills, learning to dispute pessimistic explanatory style in particular. The change can be worked either alone or with the help of therapist.

“Much of the skill of dealing with setbacks, of getting over the wall, consists of learning how to dispute your own first thoughts in reaction to a setback.”


In the book there is a lot more about the method to learn a more healthy explanatory style. It also includes a test which is very helpful. There is online version of this test, which you might find even more useful.

Book on Goodreads, Amazon.

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