Martin E. P. Seligman’s Learned Optimism and EFL in Japan

In 1990, Professor Martin E. P. Seligman, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, published a book with an extraordinarily simple message: Optimism, or thinking positively about your life and the problems and challenges that you face, often leads to success, happiness, and good health. Conversely, pessimism, or negative thinking, often leads to failure, helplessness, depression, and poor health. Make sense? Professor Seligman thought so. But first he had to convince the scientific community – especially the behavioral psychologists – that there was an empirical basis for the commonly held belief that optimism leads to success and happiness and that pessimism leads to failure and unhappiness.

Explanatory style

In successive chapters on “Work,” “School,” “Sports,” and “Health,” Seligman argues that most of our successes and many of our failures can be directly attributed to our individual and group explanatory styles. Seligman defines explanatory style as “the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen.” When you experience a setback, how do you choose to explain the situation to yourself: “An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness. Your way of explaining events to yourself determines how helpless you can become, or how energized, when you encounter the everyday setbacks as well as momentous defeats.” (15-16)

Adversity, beliefs, and consequences

Since most people are unaware that it is their own thought processes that are making the glass half-empty, Seligman first introduces the “ABC” model developed by psychologist Albert Ellis: “When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may become so habitual we don’t even realize we have them unless we stop and focus on them. And they don’t just sit there idly; they have consequences. The beliefs are the direct causes of what we feel and what we do next. They can spell the difference between dejection and giving up, on the one hand, and well-being and constructive action on the other.” (211)

Using Ellis’s ABC paradigm, the first step is to write down your adversity, belief, and consequence. Here is one of Professor Seligman’s examples for “Teaching:”

Adversity: I haven’t been able to break through the apathy some of my students feel toward learning.
Belief: Why can’t I reach these kids? If I were more dynamic or more creative or more intelligent, I would be able to excite them about learning. If I can’t reach the kids who need the most help, then I am not doing my job. I must not be cut out for teaching.
Consequences: I don’t feel like being creative. I have little energy and I feel depressed and dejected. (270)

Disputing your own pessimism

In order to counter this overly pessimistic assessment, Seligman adds a “D” and an “E” to the ABC of Adversity, Belief, and Consequences. The “D” is for Disputation. When we are overly critical of ourselves, we should dispute our pessimistic explanations for why things happen. The second step, therefore, is to write down your disputation. This is easily done and involves marshalling evidence or presenting an alternative explanation that disproves the negative belief. Again, from Seligman’s example:

Disputation: It doesn’t make sense to base my worth as a teacher on a small percentage of my students. The truth is that I do excite the majority of my students, and I spend a great deal of time planning lessons that are creative and allow the students as much individualization as possible. At the end of the term, when I have a little more time, I can organize a meeting with other teachers in the school who face this same problem. Maybe as a group we will be able to come up with some ideas that will help us reach the apathetic students. (270)

Taking constructive action

Seligman’s letter “E” stands for Energization. This final step calls for taking constructive action to address the problem:

Energization: I feel better about the work I do as a teacher and hopeful that new ideas can be generated through a discussion with other teachers. (Seligman 270)

Although you can use this formula for any adversity that you are facing in your life, it may be illuminating to see what happens when we apply the ABCDE approach to our own teaching situation. Let’s begin with an Adversity that one often hears on university campuses in Japan:

Adversity: The academic level of the students today is very low.
Belief: Ten or fifteen years ago, it was possible to teach Japanese students British and American literature. Of course, it was difficult even then to teach Shakespeare and Melville, but it could be done. Now it is impossible because the students lack the basic vocabulary and, most importantly, even the will to learn. The students today are the problem. There is nothing wrong with my lectures or my approach. If I had some good students, I could teach them something. But there is nothing that can be done with the students that I have now.
Consequence: The students are absent a lot and complain that they don’t understand the readings or my lectures. I am continually frustrated in the classroom and cancel as many classes as I can without drawing attention to myself.
Disputation: Although it is true that the students today are different than the students ten or fifteen years ago, there have been no studies done that suggest that the overall IQ of young people today is any lower than it was in 1990. What is affecting our classrooms is the general trend away from print media such as books, magazines, and newspapers to television, film, video, and the computer. The basic way that young people process information is shifting from reading to more visual forms of knowledge. Higher education is behind the times.
Energization #1: I have got to change my approach. I can still teach Shakespeare, I will just have to use a more visual, creative approach. I will forget about textual analysis for the time being and instead focus on the plays as theater – the students do respond well to that. Also, I’ll look into what other teachers are doing around the world to address this problem.
Energization #2: I have got to change my approach. If they want television, film, video, and the computer, I can use these new media to teach literature. Instead of assigning the class only books to read, I’ll ask them to see a movie made from a Hemingway novel and write a film review. After all, we’ve got a great media center with many good film adaptations of classic works of literature.

Another Adversity that one often hears in Japan is that Japanese people can’t speak English. In fact, so prevalent is this notion that there is even a book with the title Nihonjin wa Naze Eigo ga Dekinaika [Why Japanese Can’t Speak English]. Now let’s see what happens when we try the ABCDE approach:

Adversity: Japanese people can’t speak English.
Belief: Even though Japan spends more money on English language education than any other country in the world, very few Japanese people can speak English fluently. In a recent study comparing the TOEFL scores of students from different parts of Asia, Japan ranked near the bottom ahead of only North Korea.
Consequence: Both students and teachers have very low expectations for the classroom.
Disputation: It is nonsense that Japanese people can’t speak English. Many Japanese people who move to English-speaking countries learn to speak English fluently. While it may be true that the English-speaking ability of Japanese students is less than that of other Asians, Japanese students’ reading and vocabulary levels are quite high. Maybe the problem is not the students but the teaching methods. Even at the university level, many of the English classes are taught in Japanese. Also, there are very few opportunities for Japanese students to practice English outside of the classroom.
Energization: First, we need to train our teachers to use English in the classroom. If this means sending them abroad for a year or two so that they can increase their own English proficiency, we should do this in spite of the cost. Another thing that we should do is to offer our students opportunities to use English outside of the classroom. If we can create the right learning environment, our students will be able to speak English fluently by the time that they graduate from university.

Externalizing the pessimism

Seligman maintains that since you are often your own harshest critic, the pessimism that most needs disputing is your own. In spite of this, however, it may be helpful at times to practice doing the disputation step with a friend. In an exercise called “the externalization of voices,” Seligman recommends asking a friend to provide negative beliefs about a given situation in the form of accusations made out loud. What you then do is “dispute the criticisms out loud, with all the armaments you have. Marshal all the contrary evidence you can find, spell out all the alternative explanations, decatastrophize by arguing that the implications are not nearly as dire as your friend charges.” (Seligman 229)

The merits of this are obvious. First, what another person has to say – especially if she is a colleague or someone you respect – may be much more believable then what you tell yourself. Second, the other person will probably be more objective about the matter. Third, just the act of sharing a challenging adversity with another person reduces its force and, in so doing, lessens its consequence. Finally, anyone who is there for the disputation may also have some good ideas for the final energization step.

Optimism / pessimism and EFL in Japan

Although there are certainly grounds for pessimism when it comes to teaching EFL in Japan, Seligman’s research clearly shows that pessimism in general is rarely constructive. In fact, it is usually debilitating and often leads to passivity and depression. If this is the case, then what is the good of repeating and reinforcing negative beliefs about the prospects of teaching English as a foreign language in Japan? The question then becomes what can we do to promote a more optimistic learning environment for our students, our colleagues, and ourselves?

Starting with yourself

A common quip made about reform is that it is other people who have to change. What I am doing and the way that I am doing it is not the problem. The problem is that so-and-so is not doing this or that, or that the school, the bureaucracy, or the government does not want to address the underlying issue.

Although there may be some truth to these statements, they are usually not productive of much. The message of Seligman’s Learned Optimism is that you should start with your own thinking. This is what is affecting the outcome and, in many cases, predetermining failure or success. In the context of the present inquiry, “starting with yourself” means developing a more optimistic explanatory style when it comes to the adversities that you face as a teacher of English as a foreign language so that your pessimism does not poison the classroom. And one way to go about changing your explanatory style is by using the ABCDE approach.

The ABCDE template


Apply the ABCDE approach to your own teaching situation. Write down your ABCs in the spaces below. Then take a moment to think about a possible disputation (D) and an energization (E) and write these down.






Using the ABCDE approach with other teachers and administrators

Although everyone’s teaching situation is different, there are common adversities that we all share. Hearing (or reading) about how another teacher has effectively dealt with a similar problem will encourage us to find our own solutions. Towards this end, I recommend trying the ABCDE approach with your school or professional chapter either through a kenshukai (a meeting of teachers to discuss common problems related to education) or at a workshop, monthly meeting, or JALT conference. Thereafter, we might begin collecting and disseminating the ABCDEs of other teachers to our mutual benefit.

Call for future research

The field of positive psychology is rapid expanding and Seligman’s groundbreaking research has innumerable applications in the field of second language learning. At a recent CUE Conference in Nagoya, I learned that there are two teachers who are using Seligman’s Learned Optimism to encourage their students to take a more optimistic view of their own language learning. They are doing this by having their students note their own ABCDEs. Another person who has begun doing research with Seligman’s theories is Marc Helgesen. But much remains to be done and there is room enough for everyone to get involved.


Perhaps the most important message of Seligman’s Learned Optimism is that we can learn to think more optimistically in order to live happier and healthier lives. We are not born optimists and pessimists, and even if we have learned pessimism from an early age, we can unlearn it. Thinking positively about foreign language learning and our own teaching situations may also yield demonstrable results.


Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned Optimism (2nd ed). New York: Pocket Books.

Keywords: optimism, pessimism, explanatory style, adversity, belief, consequence, disputation, energization.

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