The power of learned optimism

Scott Sanderson

How 'learned optimism' can improve return to work outcomes: Breaking down Theo Feldbrugge's webinar presentation.

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right”

Henry Ford.

A happy and healthy worker is often a more successful worker. An optimistic worker is also likely to be back at work sooner.

While many things contribute to health and happiness, numerous studies have cited the importance of a positive state of mind. When it comes to injured workers, having an optimistic outlook is a key asset when dealing with the adversity of physical and/or mental harm. It can also play a large part in how efficiently and effectively they recover.

While the onus of developing this kind of optimistic mindset is largely on the individual, according to Theo Feldbrugge, RTW professionals can assist in that process as ‘RTW Coaches’ - through the use of learned optimism.


Theo Feldbrugge is the Director of Total Training, a corporate training firm based in Christchurch, New Zealand. Theo has over two decades of experience in Training and Development, with a particular interest in ‘mental fitness’, and brings to bear a perspective that few professionals can.

Around two years ago Theo sustained a significant spinal cord injury in a cycling accident. As testament to his character and dedication to positive mindset training, he described the accident as a “fantastic opportunity to practice what I preach”, and used himself as a test case throughout the recovery period. Theo not only believes in the benefits of an optimistic outlook, he is living them.


Learned Optimism (introduced in Martin Seligman’s book ‘Learned Optimism’) is a theory of positive psychology that suggests positivity is a skill that can be developed as any other.

The process of learning optimism is said to occur when an individual makes a conscious decision to challenge their own negative thoughts. Seligman studied the negative impact of pessimism and in 1987 established that such negative thoughts are a risk factor for depression.

According to Theo, learned optimism allows the individual to turn negative thoughts around: “the ability to see the future as positive, bright and hopeful” and “reframe adversity when it strikes.”

This kind of mindset does not come naturally. "It is learned; it’s not something that’s born into us”, says Theo. But while developing the ability to reframe negative thoughts has its challenges,  for those dealing with the pain and uncertainty of injury, ‘learning’ to think optimistically is well worth the effort.

A diagram showing why optimism matters: Hopefulness stimulates thinking optimistically, which promotes persistence, then develops resilience, and increases hopefulness and the cycle continues

For Employers – Better Employees

According to Theo, optimistic employees will usually be better employees. “You can predict that optimists will succeed more than people who think pessimistically...they just try harder, and that particularly applies in the face of adversity”.

For Employees – Live longer and happier

Theo says that “people who are optimistic live longer than people who are pessimistic” as they generally have “better immune systems” and their “illnesses will be less severe.”

At first glance this seems to be too good to be true, however there is a considerable body of research in support of Theo's position. For example:

  • A study by Seligman and Buchanan on American students found that those taught learned optimism techniques had less health and life problems than those who weren’t; and
  • A study by Yale University found that optimism adds seven years to your life!

Though a positive outlook may not be a magic tonic that will solve a person’s problems, it is often a precondition to the kind of clear thinking and healthy living from which the best outcomes flow.


According to Theo, the way RTW professionals conduct themselves while interacting with injured workers can help produce better outcomes.

Ways that RTW professionals can ‘coach’ injured workers to think optimistically include:

  1. Walk your talk” – “you have to model optimism in your words and actions”. Set an example by demonstrating positivity in your interaction with workers.
  2. “If you permit it you promote it” – “dispute the bad: find ways of getting them to reframe it. If you allow people to say bad things to themselves, you’re promoting it”. Some red-flag words to look out for are “always”, “never”, “everywhere”, generally “all encompassing, permanent type words”.
  3. Help people deal with the pessimistic people in their lives – The presence of pessimistic family members, supervisors, treating professionals etc. is a “very, very difficult situation from a RTW coach point of view”. Invite the worker to “consider the implications of having pessimistic people around them”, and equip them with the tools “to deal with those pessimistic intrusions and influences”.
  4. “Be aware of your own internal dialogue” – “particularly following adversity, listen to the thoughts that occur”. This will put you in the position to be able to empathise with the worker and understand the challenges associated with overcoming their negative thoughts.

Theo’s story provides inspiration. His positive mindset didn’t heal his broken bones, but it allowed him to maximise his chances of achieving the best outcome. His lesson is an important one and applies equally in the context of helping people return to work.

By training our minds to get everything possible out of ourselves and those around us, we can go beyond making a good result better, and make a better result the best.

Return To Work Matters recently presented a Webinar with Mr Theo Feldbrugge on the application of learned optimism in return to work. To view Mr Feldbrugge’s thought provoking presentation (including Q & A session) in full, click here. You can find more information on optimism and RTW in our Emotional Resilience series.

To learn more about Theo and the training programs he runs, visit the Total Training website by clicking the banner below.

For more from Dr. Martin Seligman, watch his inspiring Ted talk.

Published 13 August, 2011 | Updated 29 July, 2014