Can You Learn to Become an Optimist?

Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better.” Martin Seligman


“Sure!” answers the optimist in you.

“Unlikely”, answers the pessimist.

Sorry to disappoint your inner pessimist, but you can rewire your brain to be optimistic, and the benefits are immense.

The pioneer of positive psychology and author of Learned Optimism, Dr Martin Seligman, says “Pessimism is one of the personality traits that’s highly heritable, but also modifiable by specific exercises.”

In fact, research on twins found that optimism is only around 25 per cent inherited – the rest is up to us.

Surprisingly, the big difference between pessimists and optimists is not what they think might happen in the future. Instead, the difference is what they see as the cause of the problem.

Seligman explains:

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case.”

In another win for optimists, it turns out that you can learn to be optimistic.

“Pessimism is escapable,” says Seligman. “Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes… but by learning a new set of cognitive skills.”

Learning new cognitive skills might sound difficult, but it’s actually quite fun and not too hard. Here are two exercises you can try right now:

1.Imagine your ideal future

We spend too much time worrying about worst-case scenarios. Take a moment to playfully imagine your future success. See yourself, say ten years in the future, happy, thriving and loving life. Who is with you? What does it feel like? What dreams have come true, and in what way?

This is called the best possible selves (BPS) activity, and more than 30 studies have shown it can increase optimism, positive emotions, health and wellbeing.

The trick is to do this exercise many times over, such as once a week for eight weeks.


2.Argue with yourself

When you notice you’re having negative thoughts, argue with them. Seligman says, “First recognise them and then treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life was to make you miserable.”

You’ll find that you start standing up for yourself against your own thoughts, in the same way that you’d defend a friend being unfairly accused of wrongdoing.


When positivity becomes negative

If you haven’t heard of the term “toxic positivity”, chances are you’ve seen it in action. It’s that friend who insists on everyone being positive all the time.

Toxic positivity demands that we deny negative feelings and pretend everything is OK, even when it’s not. It’s become more prevalent than ever this last year, as people tried to cope with the challenges that the pandemic has brought.

A tell-tale phrase is “at least.” “At least you’ve still got a roof over your head.” “At least you can work while the kids are home.”

But ignoring negative feelings is like ignoring a physical health symptom: it will fester. It’s vital that we acknowledge and address difficult emotions – in others and in ourselves.

Next time you hear a friend say “gotta stay positive!”, use it as a reminder to embrace your genuine emotions.