I’m doing an experiment to become an optimist. Does anyone want to join? 

Seligman - Learned OptimismFor the past month, I’ve been doing a gratitude experiment: I committed to journaling about three things I was grateful for every day, one of the most widely cited happiness-boosting techniques there is.

I happened to be reading Learned Optimism just as I was searching for my next monthly experiment. Learned Optimism is one of the pivotal texts of positive psychology, penned by its father and pioneer, Dr. Martin Seligman. My reaction to his pages and pages of research, and the simple genius of his theory of optimism, was (in short): I’m on board. Let’s do this. 

Research has shown that becoming an optimist can alleviate depression and help prevent relapses. Optimists are more productive than their pessimistic peers, persisting through obstacles and making up for any deficits of intelligence or skills. Optimism boosts your immune system, protecting you from infectious diseases and decreasing the likelihood of breast cancer relapse. Optimistic sports teams tend to improve year-to-year, and optimistic athletes perform better, particularly in crunch time. Optimistic politicians tend to win elections. Shall I go on? 

So my next experiment is to follow the steps Seligman outlines to become an optimist. And yes, I need to become an optimist – according to the test in the book, I am moderately pessimistic.

My question is: does anyone want to join? I’ve already recruited my brother. (You can take the test first to see if you’re a pessimist.) The steps, while requiring inordinate levels of self-awareness, are simple. Here they are: 

Step 1: Observe how the voice in your head influences your life

For a few days, try to catch yourself reacting to adversity, failure, or disappointment. You’ll want to record three things:

A: the adversity. Make your description factual.
B: the belief, or the voice in your head. What do you tell yourself about that adversity? This is your opinion, and it may well be false.
C: the consequence. How did the belief make you feel or act?

Do this five times. For example: 

A: I felt stressed for the nth day in a row.
B: This is becoming a habit. Am I going to feel like this all the time? Now I’ve ruined my day.
C: I felt even more stressed and sad.

Step 2: Learn to distract yourself from the pessimistic thoughts

In the short term, start by distracting yourself from pessimistic thoughts. Try these four techniques: 

  • Startle yourself: Ring a loud bell, look at a notecard with the word “STOP” on it, or snap a rubber band on your wrist, while yelling “STOP” in your head. 
  • Shift your attention: Pick up a small object and examine it in as many ways as you can, tapping, tasting, smelling, and feeling. Really study it. 
  • Write down your pessimistic thoughts. 
  • Schedule a time later to think about them.

Step 3: Learn to dispute your pessimistic thoughts

Try to be aware when you react negatively to a setback or failure – when you hear those pessimistic voices in your head. Then, start arguing with them. 

To do that, look for evidence that contradicts your beliefs. Look for alternate causes of the failure that are less devastating. Ask yourself: even if this belief is true, what’s the worst that will happen? How likely are the different consequences? If the belief is true but destructive – it distracts you or makes you feel terrible – vow to drop it and remedy the situation later. 

We’ve already learned the ABCs; now it’s time for the ABCDEs. For example:

A: I felt stressed for the nth day in a row.
B: This is becoming a habit. Am I going to feel like this every day? Now I’ve ruined my day.
C: I felt even more stressed and sad.
D (the dispute): I may feel stressed, but it’s not as bad as earlier this week. I’ve taken steps to try to reduce stress, and I have a plan to deal with it when it bubbles up. It’s not entirely my fault if my upbringing and schooling have given me perfectionistic tendencies. The last time I felt stressed for weeks in a row, I was able to get over it and feel more relaxed most days. Just because I feel a little stress doesn’t mean my day is ruined – I had a great workout, wrote a nice article, and attended a webinar, so I was very productive.
E (the “energization,” or the new consequences): The stress subsides a little, and the future doesn’t look as grim.

The heart of pessimism is that you believe bad events are permanent, pervasive, and personal – they will be long-lasting and affect all areas of your life, and they’re your fault. A sentiment like “I’ve ruined my life” or “I always cave under pressure” or “I’m a terrible person” – in response to one error or shortcoming – encompasses all three aspects. When you dispute yourself, you want to create explanations that are temporary, specific, and external, keeping the failure contained in the short term and in one specific area of your life, and acknowledging the role of other people and of chance. For example, you might say “This hiring manager doesn’t know what he’s looking for,” or “I’ve had a lot on my plate this week.”  

Step 4: Get a friend to “insult” you

Sometimes it’s hard to dispute the ideas in your head, but it’s much easier to dispute the cruel comments that someone else makes. Recruit a willing friend or family member to spend 20 minutes telling you all the nasty, unfair, pessimistic things you tell yourself. In the process, it’s your job to argue back and debate them – disputing the way you did in step 3. It should be easier than disputing yourself. 

(As suspected, my significant other confirmed that he was incapable of spending 20 minutes calling me lazy, unproductive, messed up, and boring. My brother, however, said it would be a breeze and promptly launched into “You’re a terrible girlfriend [blah blah blah].” Thanks, bro.) 

If you’re interested in doing your own optimism experiment, send me an email! I’d love to hear about your experience, and you’re welcome to guest post about it on my blog. But mostly, I want to know if and how it works for you. I’ll be reporting back in a month.

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4 thoughts on “I’m doing an experiment to become an optimist. Does anyone want to join? 

  1. Thank you for such a lovely post on optimism. I have been following Shawn Achor and his thoughts on happiness for a few months now however I have never really tried the steps to happiness due to reasons of my own.
    Therefore, this time I am in for your optimism experiment. I know it won’t be easy but I’m truly hopeful it’s going to be fulfilling.
    Thanks again. I will keep you posted or probably write a guest post at the end of the experiment. 🙂

  2. The little voice in your head telling you you can’t do is pretty annoying. I think it helps to have someone that you trust, to whom you can say “I don’t think I can do this. I’m not good enough.” And that friend can say “I believe in you. You can do it.” You can probably convince yourself that you’re good enough, but hearing it from someone else is even more powerful, in my opinion.

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