Learned Optimism Book Review: Martin Seligman’s ABCs of Flexible Optimism

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“Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D. explores the differences between optimists and pessimists, how those differences affect each of them throughout their lives, and how to be a flexible optimist so you can bring about greater results in your life.Learned-Optimism-book-cover

With flexible optimism, you can be an optimist the vast majority of the time and you can be pessimistic on those rare occasions when that would be beneficial.

In “Learned Optimism,” Seligman extensively reveals research that he has conducted throughout his career as a leader in practical and positive psychology. Psychology explores why people do what they do. Psychology gets into our way of thinking and how that affects every area of our lives.

Through this book review of “Learned Optimism,” I’ll tell you about some of the immense value contained within Martin Seligman’s ABCs of flexible optimism. You’ll have the opportunity to learn more about yourself and others, and you’ll have the chance to apply learned optimism to your daily life.

Differences Between Optimists and Pessimists

“Pessimists … tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists … think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. … Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.” – Martin Seligman

With that quote, Seligman provides the context for what he will cover throughout “Learned Optimism.” There are differences certainly between optimists and pessimists. It could be said that optimists live by faith and that pessimists live by fear. Yes, one is healthier than the other, but there are times now and then when fear can be useful and even a lifesaver. That being said, it doesn’t help to indulge in fear too much. Too much fear leads to a severely limited life.

“Pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often.” – Martin Seligman

I enjoyed learning about the many experiments and studies that Seligman has conducted throughout his career. He shares his findings and what that means for the reader. These findings are revealed and discussed so that we can better understand what it is to be human and what we can do to improve our lives. I enjoy reading books that are practical, and “Learned Optimism” is definitely a practical book.

Seligman’s research has shown that optimists do much better as students, as workers, and as sports players than pessimists do. Optimists believe in themselves much more than pessimists do. Optimists are more likely to get elected for public office than pessimists.

“Optimists … age well. … They may even live longer.” – Martin Seligman

Considering these differences between optimists and pessimists, isn’t it much more beneficial to look on the bright side of life rather than on the dark side?

Yes, of course it is, and there is great news for that.

“A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists.” – Martin Seligman

Read this part of the quote again:

“Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists.” – Martin Seligman

That statement can easily be considered the theme of the entire book, and Seligman goes about proving it every chance he gets.

What Is Learned Optimism About?

Simply put, with learned optimism, you’re learning a new alphabet as you learn to be an optimist. Or at least you’re learning the first five letters of an alphabet. A,B,C,D,E. And they all stand for something.

  • A is for Adversity.
  • B is for Belief.
  • C is for Consequences.
  • D is for Disputation.
  • E is for Energization.

A, the Adversity, is whatever trouble / problem / challenge that you’re facing. B, the Belief, is whatever you believe about the Adversity. C, the Consequences, are your feelings, your actions, and your results from your Belief about the Adversity.

As you may have guessed, the letter D, Disputation, is the most important part of learned optimism. This is where you turn things around. This is where you learn and apply optimism. You have multiple options for what to do with your pessimistic beliefs. You can distract yourself from them and think about something else. You can dispute your pessimistic beliefs, and this is much more effective. You can also distance yourself from your pessimistic beliefs.

“It is essential to realize your beliefs … may or may not be facts.” – Martin Seligman

When you apply Disputation, you’re disputing your negative beliefs and showing yourself that optimism actually makes a lot more sense. Disputation is where you learn to be an optimist. This is where you transform yourself from being pessimistic to being an optimist. You can use Disputation in any of the following four ways:

  • Evidence
  • Alternatives
  • Implications
  • Usefulness

“The most convincing way of disputing a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect. Much of the time you will have facts on your side, since pessimistic reactions to adversity are so often overreactions. You adopt the role of a detective and ask, “What is the evidence for this belief?”” – Martin Seligman

That’s evidence. You get to gather evidence for why you have the beliefs that you do. Does the evidence support having negative beliefs? The answer tends to be a resounding “No!”

For alternatives, you’re looking for alternatives to your negative beliefs.

“Ask yourself, “Is there any less destructive way to look at this?”” – Martin Seligman

Become skilled at generating alternatives to your negative beliefs. That gives you a chance to see things for how they really are and not for how bad they might appear to be.

For implications, here’s what to do when a negative belief might be accurate. Ask yourself, “Even if my belief is correct, what are its implications?” Once you have identified the implications, ask yourself, “How likely are those awful implications?” After you’ve answered that question, search again for evidence for that negative belief.

With usefulness, you’re examining if it’s useful for you to have a particular belief. If a belief is helpful in a healthy way, then it’s useful. However, if a belief is harmful, then it’s not useful and you can go to work on dismantling it and letting it go.

Once you’ve applied D, Disputation, then you get to E, Energization, and that is the results you get from moving past your negative beliefs. You energize yourself and shine new light upon your life. You liberate yourself and get unleashing the giant within. You are a champion, and you allow yourself the chance to see that.

Now here is an example of learned optimism…

Example of Learned Optimism

Adversity: I’m not working on my projects even though I have the time available to do so

Belief: I’m helpless, and the situation is hopeless.

Consequences: I avoid working on my projects and permanently transforming my life for the better. Thus, I have more of the same, and it sure looks like I’m stuck.

Disputation: I’ve seen at various points in my life that I am quite capable of getting things done. I have surprised myself now and then with what I’ve achieved. I choose to believe in myself and take concrete actions. I choose to work on my projects, and I choose to schedule accordingly. I am capable, and the situation is solvable.

Energization: I now work on my projects, and I am starting to permanently transform my life for the better. I am getting unstuck. I feel positive about myself and about my progress. I enjoy working on my projects, and I’m glad that I’m giving them the attention they deserve. I’m glad that I’m allowing my dreams to come to life.

That’s one example. The book “Learned Optimism” provides additional examples that you can review as you apply learned optimism to your life.

Applying Learned Optimism to Your Life

Since Disputation is where you switch over from pessimism to optimism, you get to keep a Disputation Record to track your progress. Seeing your progress in writing helps you continue building the flexibility to be an optimist instead of a pessimist.

“Practice the ABCDE model. … During the next five adverse events you face, listen closely for your beliefs, observe the consequences, and dispute your beliefs vigorously. Then observe the energization that occurs as you succeed in dealing with the negative beliefs, and record all of this. These five adverse events can be minor. … In each of these, use the four techniques of effective self-disputation. … Do it in your daily life over the next week. Don’t search out adversity, but as it comes along, tune in carefully to your internal dialogue. When you hear the negative beliefs, dispute them. Beat them into the ground. Then record the ABCDE.” – Martin Seligman

As a reminder, the ABCDE is Adversity, Belief, Consequences, Disputation, and Energization. And the four techniques of effective self-disputation are evidence, alternatives, implication, and usefulness.

Go ahead now. Pick five adverse events over the next week, and keep a Disputation Record tracking how you deal with any negative beliefs that arise in your life.

Here again is what I consider to be the theme of the book “Learned Optimism:”

“Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists.” – Martin Seligman

You can do this. You are fully capable of facing up to life as it really is and not how your fears paint it to be. Your life, your circumstances, and the world are brighter than you think.


In “Learned Optimism,” Seligman provides the ABCDE framework for creating optimism out of pessimism. Learned optimism is possible, and you can take the opportunity to find out more about this excellent possibility in life. Better yet, you can apply the ABCDE framework and share in the comments section below about your results.Learned-Optimism-book-cover

There is plenty of value to be found throughout the book “Learned Optimism,” including discussion about the link between pessimism and depression. I had a great time reading the book, and I enjoy letting you know about excellent resources like it.

In “Learned Optimism,” Seligman also shares about specific times of day when you are more vulnerable to being pessimistic. To me, that part of the book shows enough reason to sleep in until at least 5:00 a.m., if at all possible.

I used to have a job where I started work at 5:00 a.m. I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready for work, and now I know one reason why I was so unhappy at that time of day. Besides being seriously sleep-deprived, of course. I had an extremely difficult time falling asleep back then.

Buy “Learned Optimism” and apply the ABCDE framework to your life. You’ll get the chance to dispute your negative beliefs and let them go. And I’m excited for you for that.

You are greater than you think, stronger than you know, and more powerful than you realize.

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Until next time,

James Barnett

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2 thoughts on “Learned Optimism Book Review: Martin Seligman’s ABCs of Flexible Optimism”

  1. Hello James,

    I really enjoyed reading this book review. It looks like a great book to read. I like to be optimistic. There is always lots of room for improvement.

    Thanks for this shining a light on this topic. Our outlook on life effects us all the time.

    You are like the captain on a ship steering the ship in the right direction. Sometimes there are tricky areas and it takes the expertise and experience of a seasoned captain to pilot the ship safely through. You are like a captain, and your ship is your website. The passengers are your readers. Your help and calm direction helps your readership become more seaworthy on the seas of life!

    1. Hello Maisie,

      Yes, “Learned Optimism” is a great book to read. In the book, our outlook on life is referred to as our explanatory style. Things happen, and we each have a style for explaining what those things mean for us and for our lives. There are positive interpretations, and there are negative interpretations. The positive interpretations are typically a lot more helpful, productive, and accurate than the negative ones.

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