Clinical psychology has traditionally focused on suffering, misery, conflict and mental illness within humans. As a result, the profession has come under scrutiny! As clinical psychologist Martin Seligman nicely states, “We not only want to focus on taking weeds out of the garden, we also need to cultivate and nurture the things we want to grow.” This led to the discipline of positive psychology—how do we go about building wellbeing which is more than just alleviating suffering? 

Positive psychology was informed by early research around learned helplessness; the sense that “when bad things happen, I can’t do anything, so I don’t even try”. Early lab tests in the 1960s told us that when humans experience something aversive, two out of three become helpless. Yet, one out of three do not. This subgroup appeared to be “immune” to helplessness. Research sought to understand them. What is it that protects humans from the effects of negative events? 

We know a healthy dose of optimism is important for wellbeing. At the same time, it’s important to note being too optimistic can lead to impracticality and overconfidence. Interestingly, research tells us that how we explain outcomes, relating to both positive and negative events, can provide us with some answers to how we can learn to become more optimistic (in a balanced way!). 

Three dimensions appear to have the ability to either “protect” us or make us more “vulnerable” to stressful events. 

  1. Temporary versus permanent 

Can I see the situation I find myself in as being temporary rather than forever? For example, how do I perceive a set-back at work, a relationship break-up or a sports injury?

  1. Local versus global 

Can I compartmentalise the situation to recognise that it relates to this one specific instance rather than everything? For example, getting a bad result on a test, having an interpersonal issue or struggling with a project at work are single events, not the only outcomes that are possible. 

  1. External versus personal

Can I recognise that anyone in my position would feel this way, rather than thinking it’s about me? For example, how do I interpret not getting a promotion at work, a rejection from someone to go on a date, or experiencing grief or loss?

Pessimists are more likely to explain a negative event as being permanent, global and personal. This explanatory style has been found to be a risk factor for learned helplessness and depression. 

Having a healthy dose of optimism (seeing a situation as being temporary, local and external) has been shown to be a protective factor against learned helplessness and can enhance our wellbeing. 

We know this sounds straightforward in theory, yet when life throws us lemons, it can be tough to put into practice and make lemonade. As human beings, we have a natural tendency to catastrophise; to focus on the worst-case scenario. Becoming more consciously aware of this, constructively disputing catastrophic thoughts and building optimism has been shown to improve health, motivation, performance and career success.

Further reading: 

We are shaped by our thoughts

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

New York; Vintage Books.