"Learned Optimism" Book Writeup

September 20, 2012

What’s the point?
Optimism has proven benefits over pessimism is nearly every aspect of life, from personal happiness to success in business. People can learn to become helpless and pessimistic, but luckily they can also learn to be become an optimist.

How was it?
The book has a fairly extensive backstory that follows the researcher’s journey to understand learned helplessness and optimism. It was interesting to see how Seligman took his findings from animals and applied them to humans. I am always intrigued by how psychologists can design an experiment to objectively capture how people feel.

The book includes a test to determine your “optimism level”. As expected, my results were pessimistic.

But it was very revealing to see which categories I was worse in. For instance, I scored poorly for the “Permanence Bad” section; this means that my internal explanatory style (how you rationalize things in your mind) tends to make bad things seem permanent (“I suck at X, I always have and always will”). But I scored highly in “Pervasiveness Good”, meaning that when something good happened, I allowed that feeling to improve other areas of my life.

The secret sauce to becoming more optimistic is training yourself to think about good events as long-lasting and far-reaching and bad events as temporary, isolated, and beyond your control.

Who should read it?
If you’re into pop psychology books (like I am), then it’s worth a read. There is some fascinating stuff about using optimism tests when hiring insurance salesmen that might also work for hiring developers.

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