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Optimism: Is It A Personality Trait, Or Could People Possibly Learn It?


There's a lot of research showing that optimism is correlated with all kinds of good outcomes like increased life expectancy, better recovery rates from heart operations, even success in work. But optimism, particularly right now, can be hard to come by. So NPR's Alix Spiegel decided to ask, can we choose it?

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: There's so much packed into the simple word optimist, a whole galaxy of complicated meanings and judgments. To say, I'm an optimist, is to say that you're someone committed to hope and progress, the sunny side of a complicated world, which brings me to Jake Fratangelo and the Optimist Creed.


JAKE FRATANGELO: To be strong so that nothing can disturb your peace of mind, to be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own, to be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

SPIEGEL: For close to 100 years, this creed has been repeated by countless members of a group called Optimist International. It got started after the First World War, when people really needed some optimism, and now has more than half a million members in 20 countries. Fratangelo is an officer in the D.C. chapter. The group raises money for schools and homeless shelters. Like so many people, Fratangelo's been sheltering at home with his family. But even for him, quite literally an avowed optimist, there have been moments when it's been hard to live the Optimist Creed.


FRATANGELO: When my 1-year-old and my 2-year-old are both screaming and I have a conference call and so does my wife, it's not my most optimistic moment.

SPIEGEL: We tend to think of optimism as a personality trait, something you're born with or maybe born without. But there is a completely different way to think about it.


SPIEGEL: This is Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman came to research on optimism through a strange back door. In the '70s, he did a series of experiments on dogs, which demonstrated what he called learned helplessness. Essentially, Seligman put dogs in a situation where they got an uncomfortable electric shock they could do nothing about and found that the dogs became so conditioned that even when they were put into a new situation where there was a clear and unambiguous opportunity to escape, they still didn't do anything. They sat there passive.


SELIGMAN: They expected that there was nothing they could do, so they didn't try.

SPIEGEL: The dogs had learned to be helpless. Seligman replicated these findings with all kinds of animals.

SELIGMAN: Mice, rats, pigeons.

SPIEGEL: But when it came to people, though his findings were largely similar, there was a real difference.


SELIGMAN: One-third of people I could not make helpless in laboratory, so I began to wonder, what was it about some people that makes them so resilient?

SPIEGEL: To understand why some people could not be made helpless, Seligman started to look at the reasons people gave when they asked themselves the question, why is this bad thing happening? See; when people try to understand why they're experiencing something painful, they often make a series of unconscious assumptions that can be thought of as a person's explanatory style. Seligman talks about three. The first has to do with whether you think of the bad thing that's happening to you as permanent or temporary.


SELIGMAN: If you fail an examination, for example, and you think the cause is, I'm stupid, well, stupidity is permanent. It's not very changeable - whereas if you thought I had a hangover, that's changeable.

SPIEGEL: The second has to do with control, whether you think you have the ability to control the outcome or not. And the third, whether you think of the painful thing in front of you as pervasive - that is something that always seems to happen to you - or if it's just this once.


SELIGMAN: You're rejected by someone you love and you might think, I'm unlovable. On the other hand, you might think, this is just not the right man for me.

SPIEGEL: Over time, Seligman was able to determine that the subset of people in his study he could not make helpless tended to assume that whatever problem they were experiencing was temporary, just this one time and controllable; an explanatory style he associates with optimists.

SELIGMAN: Pessimists, on the other hand, believe that bad events are permanent, pervasive and uncontrollable.

SPIEGEL: So what Seligman wanted to know next was, how much control do we have over which explanatory style we default to? Should optimism be thought of as an immovable personality trait? Or could it be learned just as the dogs in his experiment learned helplessness?

SELIGMAN: I wondered if you could take children who were pessimists, who are at risk for becoming depressed as they go through puberty, and teach them an optimistic explanatory style prophylactically.

SPIEGEL: So he embarked on a massive years-long study of middle-school kids in the Philadelphia suburbs where they were taught, first, to identify the underlying assumptions they were making and then to challenge those assumptions. And he says retraining explanatory style - it really did seem to help.


SELIGMAN: You come close to cutting the rate of depression in half over the next two years as they go through puberty.

SPIEGEL: If we think of optimism as a trait, part of the temperament we were born into, it can feel inaccessible to those of us who don't automatically default to a sunny view of life. But if you look under the hood, break optimism down into its smaller component parts, it feels like there might be more room in there for us all if we need it.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alix Spiegel has worked on NPR's Science Desk for 10 years covering psychology and human behavior, and has reported on everything from what it's like to kill another person, to the psychology behind our use of function words like "and", "I", and "so." She began her career in 1995 as one of the founding producers of the public radio program This American Life. While there, Spiegel produced her first psychology story, which ultimately led to her focus on human behavior. It was a piece called 81 Words, and it examined the history behind the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.