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Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. – Book Review

Learned Optimism How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman

Often described as the father of Positive Psychology, Dr. Seligman draws on over twenty years of clinical research demonstrating how optimism helps relieve depression and contributes to the quality of life – and shows you how anyone can easily learn to practice it.

Beginning with his experiences as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 60’s, Seligman describes his groundbreaking discoveries about learned helplessness and the resulting resistance to his ideas by then dominant behavioral psychologists. The story of how the young Seligman challenged his colleagues by proving that helplessness can be learned – and more importantly, unlearned –  is fascinating. (I for one am grateful for his persistence.)  More importantly, Seligman provides tools for you to begin developing your own optimism.
Up until recently, psychological therapy only offered relief of symptoms – and then all too rarely.  But helping patients cope with depression, anxiety and other mood disorders usually didn’t lead to happiness. Frustrated, Seligman was determined to find a way to help people have more fulfilling lives. At one point he realized that perhaps psychology needed to focus less on problems and more on what factors contribute to happiness.

From the Preface to the Vintage edition:

“When I first began to work on learned optimism, I thought I was working on pessimism. Like almost all researchers with a background in clinical psychology, I was accustomed to focusing on what was wrong with individuals and then on how to fix it.  Looking closely at what was already right and how to make it even better did not enter mind… At it’s best psychology had only told us how to relieve misery, not how to find what is best in life and live it accordingly. This was the unbaked half that would become Positive Psychology.”

The book includes questionnaires for both adults and children to give you an idea of your basic level of optimism. He also talks about how a person’s explanatory style can contribute to experiencing more – or less – happiness.  Learned Optimism also provides several simple practices designed to incorporate more optimism into many areas of daily life – work, school, sports, health, even politics and religion – for both individuals and organizations. Parents will appreciate the special emphasis on how to raise optimistic children.

“Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think.” ~ Martin Seligman

Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life is the foundation of Seligman’s series of books on Positive Psychology which includes Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment and The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Linda, I must get this book. As I said in a comment about your post on Explanatory Style, Dr. Seligman makes a lot of sense. It’s so interesting that previously, psychology focused largely on people who were mentally ill or had significant psychological problems. That can be helpful in sorting out the difference between people who are psychologically healthy people and those who are mentally ill. But until Dr. Seligman and other pioneers came along, no one seemed interested in studying normal, psychologically healthy people.

    Something very similar happened with the study of aging. For a long time the focus was only on people in nursing homes. It’s not surprising that they turned out to be in rapidly declining health, physically and mentally.
    Your review really piques my interest. Well done!

  • Linda, I’m loving your blog.
    This particular topic is very near and dear to my heart.

    Reading the words: Change your thinking – change your life, in my first issue of Science of Mind magazine 25 years ago profoundly changed my life. Knowing that we can create our lives by thinking correctly is empowering. It takes discipline though, which is why not everyone can stick to the “program.”

    I’m looking forward to reading your next post.

  • Hi Linda,

    Thank you for this great book review. This is right up my alley! I am so fascinated by the power of the mind and the recent work scientists are exploring in neuroplasticity and the power of changing our thoughts. Another great book is The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge MD. If we keep using our minds actively, we can make profound changes in our mental health, emotional well-being and even physical abilities. It’s amazing.

    I am subscribing to your blog today. I love it!


    • Linda Gabriel

      Hi Barrie,
      Thanks for the feedback. The new information about neuroplasticity only underscores the importance of Seligman’s insights. It is indeed amazing. Thanks for the subscribe too!

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