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Do you see the doughnut or the hole?

Learned Optimism

It's not the setback that sets you back, it's the way you look at it. Martin Seligman has been studying optimism for 25 years, and believes that how you frame setbacks in your head has a major impact on how you perform. Seligman used this idea in predicting election results. He analysed campaign speeches for their optimism content. His predictions were as reliable as those of political forecasters.

He compiled the Attributional Style Questionnaire, which measured the level of optimism. This turned out to be an effective predictor of success, in areas as varied as sport and insurance. Metropolitan Life used it in recruitment, and saved millions.

Optimism and pessimism are to some extent self-fulfilling prophecies. Those who expect to succeed are not flummoxed by disappointment. They think it's a one-off, so they keep at it. Pessimists see a disappointment as proof that they were right, and stop trying.

Your personal optimism level is not fixed. You can increase your chances of success by teaching yourself to be more optimistic. Look at these questions, just to get an idea of how optimistic you are at the moment.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

1. You've booked a long weekend in Brighton in mid May. What clothes do you pack?

a) Jumpers and jackets
b) One warm jumper, just in case
c) Summer clothes only

2. You've just started a course. The first session isn't as good as you expected. What do you decide to do?

a) That's it. I'm not going again.
b) I'll go a few times, to see how it goes.
b) Introductions never get you far - I want to learn more

3. There's a text message on your mobile from your friend, asking you to phone at once. What are your first thoughts?

a) It must be something awful?
b) Could be anything.
c) That sounds exciting

4. There are rumours about massive changes in your organisation. What are your first thoughts?

a) It must mean jobs are at risk.
b) I wonder how it will affect my job?
c) There are bound to be new opportunities in this.

5. You were going to buy a book, but you saw a bad review. What do you decide?

a) I won't bother with it now.
b) I'll browse through it in the shop first, and then decide.
c) I'll buy it and enjoy it. The reviewer doesn't know what I like

Mostly a) shows a pessimistic frame of mind. Mostly b) shows caution. Mostly c) shows an eagerness to go forward without worrying.

This isn't the Seligman questionnaire, which really did predict success, but if you show up as a pessimist, you could benefit from being more optimistic.

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