Optimism Skills and Resilience

Do you tend to look on the bright side of things? More importantly for your clinical work (if you are a counsellor, psychologist or social worker): do your clients? It used to be deemed generally irrelevant whether someone tended to see the glass “half-full” or “half-empty”, but the work of Martin Seligman in recent decades has shown that optimists have an advantage in the game of surviving and thriving.

Learned helplessness and optimistic explanatory style

Acknowledging that he is now called the “father of positive psychology”, Martin Seligman nevertheless claims that he came to an understanding about how vital optimism is for resilience as a result of long years of research into failure. His experiments, now part of the phenomenon known as learned helplessness, are classic and have been replicated many times. Basically, they involved (at different times) three groups of beings: dogs, rats, and later human beings, being subjected to either shocks (for the animals) or unpleasant experiences, such as noise, for the human subjects. In each case, the experiments would consist in three groups of subjects.

Group One, the first experimental group, would be subjected to the shock or noise. This first group would have a way of turning off the shock or noise, which all the subjects successfully learned to do. The second experimental group was called the “yoked” group, because their outcomes were “yoked” to those of the first experimental group. That is, the second group experienced shock/noise when the first group did, but, at Phase One of the studies, did not have a way to turn it off. The third group was the “control group”, which experienced no shock or noise.

The second phase of experimentation involved administering shock or noise once again to the two experimental groups. As in the first phase, the Group One subjects learned to turn it off. The third group was never exposed to shock or noise, so did not change at all. But the second, “yoked” group underwent an interesting phenomenon. In all types of subjects – dogs, rats, and human beings – most of the second group, when given the (easy) possibility of turning off the unpleasant experience (noise or shock), failed to learn to do so, often just cowering in the corner of the pen (say, for dogs), even though they could easily learn to avert the experience. The second group experienced what came to be called learned helplessness. That is, in the first phase, they had learned that they had no control and could not achieve any effect no matter what they did, and so in the second phase – when they could get out of the shock/noise — they made no attempt to do so.

Results from similar studies over the years always showed these patterns, but there was one variation Seligman and others observed which ultimately gave them the key to so-called “positive psychology”. That is that, no matter what was done to them, about one-third of the second, “yoked” group, refused to learn to become helpless. No matter what they were exposed to, they continued to believe that they had some control, that they could achieve some effect, or that there was a way out of the aversive experience (Seligman, 2011; Carbonatto, 2009).

Over the years, Seligman and colleagues began to look more deeply into how this one-third of “yoked” subjects was thinking in relation to both the experimental circumstances and life in general. In one set of experiments, the yoked group was given a task which, no matter how it was approached, could not be solved. After the period of attempting the task, the group were interviewed about their effort and their “failure”.

Most of the subjects were in a slightly depressed mood. The subjects who were not – those who refused to learn helplessness – were consistent in their explanations, offering a number of attributions for the “failure”, such as “It must have been a temporary glitch”, “It didn’t work today, but I could probably do it tomorrow,” “Other parts of my life are going ok” and so on. None of them attributed their inability to solve the task to their own incompetence or dumbness (Seligman, 1992, pp 19-28).

After analysing many hours of their taped responses, Seligman concluded that the way to “immunise” people against learned helplessness, against depression and anxiety, and against giving up after failure was by teaching them to think like these optimists. What has come to be called “optimistic explanatory style” (Seligman, 1992; 2011) comes down to three crucial dimensions:

Permanence: Whether we believe that a given event will go on for a long time or not. Pessimists believe that “bad” events will go on for a long time, whereas optimists believe just the opposite, that the tough stuff is about to end. For example, an optimist who lost her job would tend to believe that she could replace it fairly readily.

Pervasive: How specific or universal the event is: in other words, how much of our lives it pervades. Pessimists believe that the difficult happening will spread from one area of life to others, whereas optimists are quick to point out that a given difficult circumstance is limited in scope. The optimist, for example, may have lost her job, but she will observe that she still has excellent health and supportive relationships; in other words, she will say, the “bad news” is confined to the work arena, and does not affect other aspects of life.

Personalised: Whether it is we or others who get the blame (for the “bad” stuff that happens), or the credit (for the achievements). Optimists consistently attribute failures to causes outside themselves (like Seligman’s subjects, who said that the task could not be completed because of a “glitch” or something else, but not because they were incompetent to do it). Pessimists, conversely, blame themselves, even when they should not. The job-losing optimist might, for instance, claim that she had performed well in her role, but that she was let go because the organisation was going through a downturn (Seligman, 1992).

How optimistic do you perceive your clients to be? The good news is that, even if they are not natural optimists, they can come to embrace learned optimism. You can help them, by challenging places in their thinking where they succumb to negative thinking (such as any time they “awfulise” about something being permanent, ruining their “whole life”, or being “my entire fault”). There are some other optimism skills to employ as well.

Social comparison thinking

In addition to helping your clients re-frame their thoughts to see “bad” events as temporary, limited, and not their fault (when events are out of their control), you can encourage them to engage in social comparison thinking. As an optimism skill, this is the habit of making positive comparisons with similar others. Let us explain that a bit.

Social comparison thinking can enhance or diminish resilience according to how it is used. If your client, say, engages in comparing herself with others, but those others constitute an unfair reference group, then she may be causing herself to feel less satisfied with her own life, and thus be less resilient. An example would be the person who wants to learn French and enrols in French language class, but is hard of hearing. It would be unfair to compare her performance in conversational skills at the end of the class with those students who had normal hearing, some of whom may have even had the advantage of living or travelling in France!

Conversely, work by Cash (1983) has shown that social comparison thinking, applied as an optimism skill, involves finding a favourable reference group and comparing oneself with that. For instance, a new real estate sales person, who may be working part time at a paid job while he builds up his real estate contacts, would not be engaging optimist skills, nor thinking resiliently, if he insisted on comparing his sales record for the year with those of more seasoned real estate agents, who work full time and may have been doing the job for many years. He would be much more valid to compare himself to other new agents, especially those working part-time.

Silver-lining thinking: Avoid “focusing illusions”

The optimism skill of silver-lining thinking goes hand in hand with avoiding what researchers have called “focusing illusions” (Schkade and Kahneman, 1987). It is about acknowledging the dark clouds (say, impending divorce or diagnosis of an incurable condition), but refusing to give an inappropriate amount of attention (focus) to certain feared aspects of the “cloud”, concentrating instead on the silver lining in the clouds: some aspects of the situation that may be positive, despite the overall tough circumstance. An example of this occurred in the late 1980s, when getting AIDS was pretty much a death sentence. On an “AIDS Road Show” set up to promote safe sex, one of the AIDS patients participating was asked how he was managing to live so cheerfully and with such obvious happiness, given his condition. “Oh,” he said, “that’s easy. I – and many others with AIDS – know that our time may be limited, so we just let the rubbish go by.”

That is, he saw the dark cloud – the spectre of death hanging over him – and decided not to focus on his probable shortened lifespan, looking instead to the quality of his relationships and the enjoyable and meaningful things he could do with his time. He resiliently re-framed, “I’m probably going to die before too long” to “I have a wonderful quality of life now”, thus avoiding the focusing illusion that all of life now must be held ransom to (focused on) early death.

Take advantage of opportunities

The skill of seeing, and then taking up, opportunities, is a response which, to be fair, crosses over into resilience skills other than strictly optimism ones. Wherever in a schema it occurs, the act of attempting to better one’s position is an expression of trust that a better future exists, and that it can be attained: in other words, an optimistic response. History is rife with people who, in the face of some unfortunate experience, nevertheless maximised it by a “sideways” response which utilised what resources were available in the moment.

Julio Iglesias once told an interviewer making a documentary film about him that his singing career may not even have gotten off the ground were it not for having broken his leg as a teenager. Lying there in traction in hospital, Julio could not move much, let alone get back on the playing field to do the football he was so keen to play. Someone brought him a guitar to fool around with and, as they say, the rest is history; Julio took full advantage of the months on his back to begin an endeavour that would define his life.

The power of optimism

Why should we strive – or encourage our clients to strive – for optimism? Seligman has noted that there are “literally hundreds of studies” which show that pessimists get discouraged and give up more easily, while optimists’ performance at work and in academic and sporting arenas tends to exceed predictions made for them. They generally enjoy excellent health, the capacity to age well and even increased longevity (Seligman, 1992, p 5).

Attributional Style Questionnaire: An exercise

Many of the questionnaires and survey instruments designed to work out whether someone is an optimist or not are statistically complex and difficult to use. Dykema et al (1996) offer a simplified questionnaire for general use to assess the attributional style of your clients. For each of twelve situations, you ask your client to vividly imagine being in the situation, and then state what would have caused the situation to happen to them. For each item, the client rates his/her sense of permanence (on a 7-point scale from -3 to +3) with “How likely is it that this will continue to affect you?” The client’s sense of globality-specificity (pervasiveness) is also rated by answering “How much is the cause you gave likely to affect other areas of life?”

While you probably do not have access to formal statistical analysis of your client’s responses, you will be able to see the general trend. The more clients give attribution to factors outside themselves for negative events, the more they see events/setbacks as temporary, and the more they see them as specific, affecting just one area of life (as opposed to being global or pervasive), the more optimistic they are.

On this instrument, the highest possible score is 72: six points possible for each of 12 situations. The lowest possible score is -72. The lower the scores (especially including total scores that are below zero and thus in negative territory), the more optimistic the person’s explanatory (attributional) style. The higher the total score, the more the person is engaging in pessimistic thought and is thus low on optimism. Those who score low on optimism can be trained to boost their optimistic outlook.

This article is an extract of the Mental Health Academy course “Fostering Resilience in Clients”. For more information, visit www.mentalhealthacademy.com.au.


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