top of page

What is learned helplessness? How to cultivate a talent for positive thinking?

Updated: May 13

What is Learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness is not an innate trait, it is learned through due the course of time and experience we face in life through conditioning. it is a phenomenon observed in both humans and other animals when they have been conditioned to expect pain, suffering, or discomfort without a way to escape it. We tend to feel, think and act as if we are helpless when we strongly believe that they are is no control over the things that happen to us.

1. Learned Helplessness and Mental Health:

  1. Learned Helplessness can contribute to the feelings of anxiety, and persistence of such conditions leads to GAD and depression.

2. Learned Helplessness in Education:

  1. Learned helplessness in students creates a vicious cycle of feelings of failure and depression.

  2. Those who feel that they are unable to succeed are unlikely to put much effort into their schoolwork, which decreases their chances of success, leading to even less motivation and effort.

3. Learned Helplessness in Relationships & Abuse:

  1. We will have several questions in mind about victim actions. Why did it report to anyone? Why don’t they move out of the abusive relationship? Why they didn’t try to get help? Why didn’t they just leave the abuser?

  2. It is easy to see and comprehend how abuse can lead to learned helplessness, which can subsequently lead to a lack of motivation or effort to escape from the abuser.

  3. The perspectives and beliefs which are formed during this phase are hard to shake, they often require intensive therapy to come out of learned helplessness in an abusive relationship.

What is learned optimism?

In another case, learned optimism is the exact opposite to learn helplessness and we can cultivate this positive thinking by applying Seligman’s methods. Learned optimism is the concept that a positive mindset can be cultivated, even in those with pessimistic tendencies.

In a previous article about optimism in life, I described pessimists and optimists and their differences. Here, we need to understand that, even though optimists and pessimists are faced with the exact same events, pessimists may be more likely to predict negative outcomes when compared to optimists.

Whereas optimists will bounce back from this situation and move on in life. This is due to a different outlook on permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.


  1. Staying the same or continuing for a long time.

  2. an optimist believes that the darker days will pass, a pessimist may ruminate during a negative time in their life and see the darkness as permanent.


  1. The fact of being present and noticeable in every part of a thing or place.

  2. An optimist might experience a failure at work yet still be able to see that they have been successful in other areas, such as their personal life.


  1. The process of making something suitable for the needs of a particular person.

  2. An optimist has learned to attribute success in life to their own efforts and abilities. They don’t blame anyone or the situation.

  3. These are known as the “3 Ps of pessimism” which were formulated by Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of positive psychology.

How to learn optimism?

Seligman’s Learned Optimism Model:

  1. Learning to be optimistic was made simple by Martin Seligman. He developed ABCDE approach to go from learned helplessness to learned optimism.

  2. Let’s see and understand the Martin Seligman method to gain insights into the learned optimism.

  3. Take a hypothetical situation where you need to attend an interview and it’s a very important one or life-changing.

  4. Let us apply the Seligman method to this hypothetical situation.


You can start by, describing a recent specific experience of adversity. Using our hypothetical example, you could write that you are procrastinating and having difficulty doing any preparation for an upcoming interview.


Then, write down all thoughts associated with the adversity. Record the exact sentences: for example “I’m not equipped enough to get through this interview” or “I may fail to answer the questions that are asked in the interview“. You don’t have to be positive at this stage, let thoughts come and capture them accurately. The goal is to catch the essence or extent of pessimism so you can change your outlook in the next steps.


Now, it’s time to consider the impact of these beliefs on your feelings and on your behavior. For example: in the above situation we may feel that “these beliefs made me feel stress and overwhelmed” or “this belief made me anxious about the interview process” and here don’t judge yourself or don’t be critical, these consequences are perfectly natural given the negative thoughts and circumstances.


Now the time has come to put your beliefs into perspective. You need to find evidence for thoughts and beliefs and challenge them accordingly to disapprove of the negative thoughts. For example: “this belief of me being unable to perform in an interview has no proper evidence because this is not the first interview and I did best in my previous interview”. Try to see an alternative form of a belief you had previously, try saying to yourself that “okay, another way of seeing this situation is that I care a lot about the current situation me getting into a job is very important as my family depended upon me making me anxious.”


  1. Finally, use the newly found energy that you got from the disputation step to cultivate a more positive outlook on the challenges or situations you are in.

  2. Consider the progress you have made and how this method help you to get an alternate perspective or helped you to manage negative beliefs in a better way.

This is how one can cultivate a talent for positive thinking and learned to be optimistic.

Vamsy Krishna D Psychologist

1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page