In Praise of Learned Optimism


October 18, 2021

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.

Noam Chomsky, Linguist, Philosopher, and Cognitive Scientist

We write a lot about optimism here at Philosophy of Leisure, and with good reason. Without optimism, or its individual components, we’d be hard pressed to move forward with anything of significance, let alone make the gigantic leaps of faith that often accompany an adventurous, happy, and fulfilling life. You’ll find “100 Ways to Be Optimistic” in our library of tools, and we’ve written a newsletter series, entitled “The School of Optimism” in support of discovering, building, strengthening, and protecting optimism in our lives.

After all, where would we be without the optimism to embark on a lifelong partnership with the one we love? Or in opening our own business? Or parenting children? Or in learning a new sport or hobby? Or traveling far and wide to see the world, and learn about other cultures? Optimism plays such a significant role in our lives, yet it rarely gets the credit it deserves, and it’s also often seen as something we’re either born with or not, when in reality science is beginning to unravel the mystery of optimsm – that it is indeed a skill which can be learned and strengthened, just as learned helplessness can be.

In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Martin Seligman, father of the Positive Psychology movement, who was once elected President of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in the organization’s history, “draws on more than twenty years of clinical research to demonstrate how optimism enhances the quality of life, and how anyone can learn to practice it. Offering many simple techniques, Dr. Seligman explains how to break an “I—give-up” habit, develop a more constructive explanatory style for interpreting your behavior, and experience the benefits of a more positive interior dialogue. These skills can help break up depression, boost your immune system, better develop your potential, and make you happier.. With generous additional advice on how to encourage optimistic behavior at school, at work and in children, Learned Optimism is both profound and practical–and valuable for every phase of life.” ~ Goodreads.

“Optimistic people play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are inventors, entrepreneurs, political and military leaders – not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks.”

Daniel Kahneman, Psychologist and Behavioural Economist

But where to begin? In researching optimism, we’ve come to believe that there are 5 primary components of optimism, and that enhancing each one will help us apply Dr. Seligman’s ideals, and to naturally become more optimistic in a way that’s comfortable for each of us, as we aren’t all built to be jump-on-the-sofa optimists. There’s plenty of room for the quietly optimistic among us, and for the logically optimistic, as well.

The components we’ve found to be the most important are hope, positivity, courage, emotional intelligence, and resilience. These 5 traits make up the PoL Optimism Wheel, as they tend to be a self-perpetuating cycle, once we make them our practice.

Here are the traits which make up the Optimism Wheel:

  1. Hope – the first tentative seed of optimism, and the spark we need to ignite it. Hope can sometimes be battered about a bit, so it’s worth finding a practice to help us relearn to hope, if we’re finding it difficult, and to protect it from future doubt.
  2. Positivity – the fuel, or food, we add to the wish, dream, plan, idea, or goal – the ability to believe in the possibilities. 
  3. Courage – the strength and bravery necessary to attempt the not-so-sure-thing.
  4. Emotional Intelligence – the ability to apply compassion, empathy, and rational thinking in our hopes, dreams, and beliefs, especially during challenging times, and in support of the dreams of others.
  5. Resilience – the ability to view defeat not as a personal failing, but as a necessary part of life, growth, and of success.

In our newsletter series we explore each of these components separately, and use resources to help us practice each skill individually to enhance the greater whole, as we’ve found that the skill of optimism is an imperative in the search for happiness and meaning, no matter who we are, what we do, or where we live. As Mr Chomsky said in our opening quote – “…Optimism is a strategy for making a better future.” for both ourselves, and for our world.  It sets us apart as leaders, and as a visionary in many respects, as the world will always look to the optimists.

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