You can help depression by learning to be optimistic.

One of the most hopeful discoveries of psychology is that you can help depression by learning to stop pessimistic, helpless thinking and start optimistic, hopeful thinking.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Martin Seligman (1990) calls depression, “the ultimate expression of pessimism.” (p. 16)

Dr. Seligman, while a graduate student, observed a group of dogs begin to behave as if they were depressed. These dogs were being used in research focused on how emotional behavior is learned. As a part of the research the dogs were repeatedly exposed to a tone followed by a mild electric shock.

The researchers wanted the dogs to associate the tone with the soon-to-occur shock. Then they planned to teach the dogs to avoid the shock by jumping over a barrier into a different part of their cage.

Once the dogs learned to avoid the shock by jumping over the barrier, the researchers would see if the tone also caused them to jump over the barrier. Thus, they wanted to know if the behavior used to avoid the shock (jumping over the barrier) would also be used in response to fear of the soon-to-occur shock signaled by the tone.

Things were not going as the researchers expected, however. Rather than learning to jump, the dogs became passive, just laying down, whimpering, and waiting for the shock to happen. Seligman concluded that the dogs had learned to be helpless. That is, the dogs had learned that no matter what the did, bad things were going to happen. They could not do anything to escape the negative circumstances.

The dogs had learned to expect the shock. This expectation resulted in helpless, passive behavior. Further research confirmed this “learned helplessness.”

Dr. Seligman and his colleagues, through additional research, found that when dogs learned initially, as puppies, that they could avoid bad things such as shocks from happening, they never learned to be helpless. This was true even when they experienced adversive situations that couldn‘t be avoided latter in life.

The dogs learned to expect to have the ability to avoid the shock. Thus, they had learned to be optimistic. The optimistic dogs never learned to be pessimistic. Therefore, development of learned helplessness had be prevented.

Another interesting finding was that the dogs that had learned to be passive and helpless could, with much effort, learn to stop being helpless and to actively avoid the shocks. This took a lot of effort on the part of the researchers, however. The dogs did not learn to overcome their helplessness on their own. They needed help.

Then a graduate student at Oregon State University began to investigate how learned helplessness applies to humans. He conducted research much the same as Dr. Seligman’s but using human subjects. In the human research the subjects were exposed to annoying situations that they could not avoid--such as noise.

As in Dr. Seligman’s research, once people learned that they could not avoid the annoying noise, they became passive and helpless. They did not take action to escape the annoying noise even when such action was possible and easy to accomplish.

Another fact that was discovered was that 33% of both the dogs and the humans could not be taught to become helpless. They were resilient to the adverse situations and did not give-up becoming passive.

At that point the researchers began to try to find out what made these human research subjects resilient. They found that the key was what the people said to themselves to explain their circumstances when facing adverse situations.

Those people who explained their negative situations as…

  • permanent-- “Things will never be any better.”

  • pervasive-- “My whole life is ruined.”

  • personal-- “It’s all my fault.”
…became helpless and passive.

Those people who explained their negative situation as…

  • temporary-- “Things will get better.”

  • specific-- “This situation is bad but much of my life is really OK.”

  • circumstantial-- “This problem is just an unfortunate circumstance. It’s not my fault.”

…were optimistic and active in trying to make their situations better.

Learning to be helpless can have dire consequences in a person’s life. Helplessness researchers have found that people who are pessimists become depressed more easily, underachieve at work, get sick more often, and experience life as less pleasurable when compared to optimists.

Dr. Seligman (1990) also argues very convincingly that depression is the same thing as learned helplessness. Those who have learned to be helpless and those who are depressed both…

  • have a depressed mood

  • lose interest in usual activities

  • lose their appetites

  • experience insomnia

  • have less physical and mental energy and, thus, think and move more slowly

  • blame themselves for problems feeling worthless and inept

  • and have difficulty thinking, learning, and attending. (p.69)
As bad as learned helplessness is, this research brings hope. If a person learns to be helpless then he or she can also learn not to be helpless. Stated differently, if a person learns to be depressed then he or she can also learn not to be depressed.

Seligman (1990) writes, “Depression results from lifelong habits of conscious thought. If we change these habits of thought, we will cure depression.” (p. 75)

Research has also shown that both medication alone and cognitive therapy alone can help depression. Cognitive therapy is a psychological treatment that focuses on changing how a person thinks about him- or herself, his or her world, and his or her future.

When combined, medication and cognitive therapy are even more effective. However, the increased benefit of the combined treatment is only slightly better than that resulting from cognitive therapy alone.

But more importantly, those who used cognitive therapy to overcome depression did not relapse into further depressive episodes as often, experienced more lasting improvement, and did not experience medication side effects (because they were not taking the medications).

This means you can help depression by changing your thinking from pessimistic to optimistic.

The impact of cognitions or thinking on depression has be found to be the same for children (Laurent & Stark, 1993), teenagers, (Garber, et al., 1993), and the elderly (Lam et al., 1987).

Research has also found that cognitive bibliotherapy can help depression. Bibliotherapy involves reading--such as reading self-help books or therapeutic workbooks. The benefits of bibliotherapy have been found to compare favorably with the benefits of individual psychotherapy (Gregory et al., 2004), require only minimal contact with the therapist ( Jamison & Scogin, 1995) and last for at least six months (Scogin et al., 1998).

A resource that can help you identify and change negative, pessimistic, helpless thinking into positive, optimistic, hopeful thinking and, thus, help depression is The “How to Transform Your Life” E-Workshop. Click here to learn more about how you can use this E-Workshop to help depression.


Garber, J., Weiss, B., Shanley, N. (1993). Cognitions, depressive symptoms, and development in adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102(1), 47-57.

Gregory, R. Schwer Canning, S., Lee, T., Wise, J. (2004). Cognitive bibliotherapy for depression: A meta-analysis. Professional Psychology, 35(3), 275-280.

Jamison, C. & Scogin, F. (1995). The outcome of cognitive bibliotherapy with depressed adults. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 63(4), 644-650.

Lam, D., Drewin, C., Woods, R., & Bebbington, P. (1987). Cognitive and social adversity in the depressed elderly, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 96(1), 23-26.

Laurett, J. & Stark, K. (1993). Testing the cognitive content-specificity hypothesis with anxious and depressed youngsters, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102(2), 226-237.

Scogin, F., Jamison, C., & Gochneaur, K. (1989). Comparative efficacy of cognitive and behavioral bibliotherapy for mildly and moderately depressed older adults, Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 57(3), 403-407.

Seligman, M. (1990). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, New York: Pocket Books.