Learned Optimism

Podcast of the blog

Learned optimism

What is it?

We are all aware of the notion of optimism, in it that it is a sense of confidence about the future, but what does learned optimism mean? Optimism is the idea that we can cultivate optimism, just like any other skill we acquire, that one need not necessarily be innately optimistic, but it can be built, improved upon with certain practices. What’s more? This idea isn’t just an impractical notion; strong research has backed this claim.

Why should you care?

“Alright, interesting enough, but how is that relevant to me or the pandemic “I hear you say, and to be fair that’s a reasonable concern, but, here’s why it’s important: We have evidence that optimism has a positive correlation with resilience, or, the ability to adequately cope or bounce back from adverse events. In other words, it means, the more one learns optimism, the better the ability to cope healthily with a difficult situation. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown have been extremely challenging for everyone’s mental health, and learning to cultivate optimism may serve as an inoculation against adverse effects on our mental health. In other words learned optimism is to mental health, what covaxin and covishield are to physical health, a preventive method.

How

Now that you understand the power of learned optimism, let’s look into how to practically apply it to our lives, here are a few exercises you can try, to develop an optimistic outlook:

1. Sticking to your ABCs: Write down or at least mentally go through, what was the Adverse situation, which Beliefs about the situation came to mind while experiencing this situation, and what was the Consequence?

For ex: Adverse situation- Getting poor appraisal at work
Belief: “I’m useless; I have no talents/skills”
Consequence: Feeling low, giving up trying to improve skills

Then ask yourself, what alternate beliefs can you generate, for the same situation, ask yourself what might different kinds of people believe in the same situation? Ask yourself for evidence for your belief and evidence against your belief and based on this pick the most realistic belief to have.

For example, for the above example, you may come up with the following alternative beliefs
 I probably need to manage time better, to get time to improve my work skills
 Maybe I need to seek help from seniors at work
 Maybe I did not strategize well enough to get a positive appraisal
 I may not be the best at this but I sure can improve with practice

And ask yourself what evidence you have, to prove that the belief given in the example is realistic and what evidence you have on the other side, like:
Evidence for the belief that “I’m useless”:
 The previous appraisal was poor as well
 My mom says “I’m useless”. Evidence against the belief that “I’m useless”:
 I did reasonably well at another company
 I usually get reasonably good at tasks with sincere practice
 Usually, with a little help from my colleagues/ mentors, I perform reasonably better

2. Do what’s in your control: List out all the things about the situation that is in your hands, and all the things that are outside of your hands. Give yourself small goals, teeny tiny goals to do, in order to do things, which you can change. Write down/reflect upon why this goal is important to carry out, write down the steps/ actions you can take to carry out the goal, write/ think of obstacles that may arise in doing these steps, and brainstorm plans for each obstacle.

3. Try cognitive defusion for things outside your control: When things that are outside your control bother you, identify what thoughts are bothering you, and remember that you need not believe all your thoughts, all your thoughts might not reflect reality. To take the punch out of such thoughts, practice responding to your thoughts by saying “I’m having a thought that”, rather than allowing thoughts free reign over you. For example instead of “things will never get better”, you can practice saying, “I’m having a thought that things won’t get better”. This simple letter will help create some distance between the thought and you and reduce its impact on you. There are plenty more cognitive defusion exercises, you can find them here:
https://www.philosophyforlife.org/blog/ten-defusion-techniques-for-unhooking-your-mind
https://contextualscience.org/cognitive_defusion_deliteralization

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