A New School of Thought: Learned Optimism

Written by: Claire Hallett

We’ve all been asked, “Are you a glass half-empty or half-full type of person?” as if our answer reflected some fixed personality trait. However, there are those who argue that you can become a glass half-full person. According to Seligman (2006), the father of positive psychology, “A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. 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.” This is the principle of learned optimism.

The cognitive skills referred to by Seligman include identifying cognitive distortions, countering negative thoughts, and finding alternative interpretations. These are frequently used in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is considered the gold standard of psychological treatment for a variety of mental illnesses (Rector, 2010).

Individuals with mental illness often experience cognitive distortions, which are specific errors in thinking that bias one towards a negative interpretation of events. One class of cognitive distortions is disqualifying the positive. This is a tendency to ruminate on shortcomings, but trivialize accomplishments (Rector, 2010). Individuals can be taught to recognize and acknowledge the irrationality of cognitive distortions. This is the first step towards curbing negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones.

The next step is to counter and find alternative interpretations for negative thoughts. People are very good at noticing and worrying about the negative components of a situation. However, often a positive interpretation of events is equally, if not more, plausible. To illustrate, imagine that your friend suddenly cancels plans due to an emergency. This is a scenario most of us are familiar with. Someone with a pattern of negative thinking might automatically assume that they cancelled plans because the friend no longer likes them. However, it is also possible that there truly was an emergency. It is helpful for those with negative thinking patterns to train themselves to come up with alternative explanations. Thought records are one method of doing this. In a thought record, you record the situation, your thoughts and emotions about it, evidence for and against the thought, and an alternative interpretation of the situation. CBT practitioners often use thought records to teach patients to think positively, much as a teacher assigns homework.

It seems obvious that most people would prefer to be optimistic, simply for the sake of feeling more hopeful. However, there are some other surprising benefits of optimism. Optimists do better in school, work, and extracurriculars (Seligman, 2006). They also have better physical and mental health, including greater resistance to the common cold, lower rates of depression, and better coping skills during times of distress (Mayo Clinic staff, 2017). Optimism has benefits for almost every area of life.

With all this being said, it is easy to look on the bright side during happy times. What makes a person an optimist is the ability to look on the bright side during hard times. This is not a skill that people are born with, just as they are not born as “glass half-full” or “glass half-empty” types of people. Rather, optimism is a skill that must be learned and practiced, like anything else.



Mayo Clinic staff. (2017). Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress. Retrieved


Rector, N. A. (2010). Cognitive-behavioural therapy: An information guide. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Seligman, M. E. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage.

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