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Why Your Brain is Wired for Pessimism—and What You Can Do to Fix It

We’ve evolved to expect the worst. Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist, explains why—and what you can do to get some optimism back.


Ever had someone tell you to just cheer up? Did it drive you crazy? Well, turns out that someone telling you to “be happy” isn’t just annoying—it’s also wildly unhelpful.

“‘Happy’ is a pretty useless word,” says Dr. Martin Seligman, psychologist and former President of the American Psychological Association. “If you tell someone to be happy, it doesn’t tell [him or her] what to do.”

Seligman compares being happy to falling asleep: it’s not something you can actively do—in the way you can get stronger by lifting more weights. It just kind of has to happen. And as the father of positive psychology—the study what makes a good or meaningful life—much of Seligman’s work has dealt with trying to help people figure how to make it happen.

Naturally, you might think he's an optimistic guy.

“Half the world is on the low positive affective spectrum,” he says referring to positive affectivity, a trait that usually correlates with sunnier dispositions. “I'm part of it, and a lot of the justification for what I work on, and what I write, is to try to help half the world, who is not naturally positive affective, to be more positive and optimistic.”

What he has learned is that well-being can be broken into five elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (PERMA). Improve those and you might find yourself closer to that vague idea of “happiness”. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy when half of us are low on positive affectivity. But Dr. Seligman learned how to be optimistic, and here, leaning on many of the ideas he explores in his book The Hope Circuit, he lays out how you can, too.

Why does it seem like we are wired for pessimism?

The species that [was] going through the Ice Ages had been bred, and selected, through pessimism. The mentality that said, "It's a beautiful day in San Diego today, I bet it'll be beautiful tomorrow" got crushed by the ice. What got selected for, in the Ice Ages, was bad weather animals, who were always thinking about the bad stuff that could occur. So what comes naturally to people is pessimism.

The problem about pessimism is that, to the extent [that] it's gonna be a nice day in San Diego tomorrow, and you're thinking all the time, “What a disaster it's gonna be,” you can't enjoy it. What needs teaching, because it doesn't come naturally, is optimism.

When you look at pessimistic people, probably the single [most-telling] hallmark is they think that bad events are permanent and that they're unchangeable. So what learned optimism is all about is recognizing that you're saying that to yourself, and then realistically arguing against it.

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