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by Allison Aboud Holzer

I love it when my dog, Stella, ignores me. You see, Stella is a formerly abandoned rescue dog. Her previous owner went to the ER one day and never came home. Stella almost starved to death waiting for her pack leader to return. When we first brought her home, she naturally feared being left behind. Any time we left, we could see the anxiety in her expression. Over the last year, we have worked hard with our Barkbusters trainers on her separation anxiety. And I am proud to say that Stella now ignores us when we come and go – a demonstration of her optimism that we will always return home to her.

Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania first studied optimism by observing the behavior of dogs.[1] His experiments eventually led to the creation of his theory called Learned Optimism.[2] While some people are naturally more optimistic than others, optimism is an attitude that can be learned with practice and dedication.  

According to Seligman, optimists interpret positive events as personal, permanent and pervasive and negative events as impersonal, temporary and specific. An optimist would say:

  • “I got the job because I’m smart and talented (permanent and personal). I will always get the job when I put my mind to it (pervasive)!”
  • OR, “I didn’t get the job because there were many other qualified candidates (impersonal). This wasn’t the right time (temporary) or the right job (specific) for me.”

Contrast that with pessimists who interpret positive and negative events in the opposite way:

  •  “I got lucky this time getting the job (temporary and specific). There must not have been many other candidates applying (impersonal).”
  • OR, “I didn’t get the job. I’m a failure (personal and permanent). I don’t know why anyone would want to hire me (pervasive).”

Try keeping an optimism journal to develop new habits. First, record your thought reactions to positive and negative events in your life for at least two weeks. Second, study your notes and look for areas in your life where you lean more toward pessimism. Finally, challenge yourself to write down optimistic responses to your pessimistic thoughts for two more weeks. Then reflect on what this process was like for you.

It takes a lot of work to develop a new habit of intentional optimism; but new research continues to validate that it’s worth the effort.  A recently published study by University of Pittsburg researcher, Dr. Hilary Tindle, shows that optimistic women not only have fewer incidences of cancer and heart disease, but they are 14% less likely than pessimists to die an early death.[3] Tindle says that optimistic people may be more proactive about their health, have stronger and larger support networks, and/or cope better with stress.

I’m a big believer that old dogs can learn new tricks. If my 5-year-old dog Stella can learn optimism, then we all can!

  1. Seligman, M. (1976). Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 105, 3 – 46.
  2. Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage Books, NY.
  3. Tindle, H.A., Chang, Y., Kuller, L.H. (2008). Optimism, Hostility and Incident Coronary Heart Disease and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative. American Heart Association, S_1145-S_1146.

 


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