Learned Optimism

Learned Optimism

How to become an optimist? Change your thoughts!

Martin Seligman was the president of the American Psychological Association and is one of the eminent leaders of the “positive psychology” movement, which focuses not just on making ill/depressed people feel better, but make OK people feel even greater! His book, Learned Optimism, was recommended to all by Karl Bunday of Hacker News. So I read it.

Seligman anchors his argument in the context of Learned Helplessness, a concept he helped pioneer. From Wikipedia:

learned helplessness refers to a condition of a human being or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected.

Seligman says that depressed behavior is often a symptom of learned helplessness.

It turns out that not everyone reacts the same way to negative external events. Some people bounce back after a bout of depression (which almost everyone experiences in the face of adversity), others wade, marooned in their sadness, fits of despondency. People who are resilient are more emotionally intelligent – and they tend to be optimists. People who wade are pessimists.

Seligman attributes these categorical differences to what he calls “explanatory style”. If you have an optimistic explanatory style, you “explain” away negative events with positivity; if you have negative explanatory style, you explain them with negativity. There are three dimensions to your explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.

Permanence means saying things like “You always nag” instead of “You nag when I don’t clean my room”, or “I’m all washed up” instead of “I’m tired.” To think about bad things in always’s and never’s is pessimistic; to think with sometimes and lately’s, and blaming bad events on transient conditions, you have an optimistic style. The converse, however, is that optimists explain GOOD events with permanence, whereas pessimists attribute good events to temporary conditions. A pessimist might say “It’s my lucky day”, or “I try hard”, or “My rival got tired” instead of “I’m always lucky”, “I’m talented”, or “My rival is no good.”

Pervasiveness is about universal vs specific. For example, in bad events, a pessimist might say “All teachers are unfair”, “I’m repulsive”, or “Books are useless”, whereas an optimist might say “Professor Seligman is unfair”, “I’m repulsive to him”, or “This book is useless”. The converse holds as well: optimists explain good events with universal style whereas pessimistic use specifics. For example, a pessimist says “I’m smart at math”, “My broker knows oil stocks”, or “I was charming to her” instead of “I’m smart”, “My broker knows wall street”, or “I was charming”.

Aside: Seligman claims that people who make permanent AND universal explanations for their troubles tend to collapse under pressure. He calls this dimension “hope” and he says no other “score” is as important as your hope score, and he operationally defines hope as a combination of your negative-permanence and negative-pervasiveness.

Personalization is about how much you attribute negative events to your own causality versus bad external events. When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves (internalize) or we can blame other people or circumstances (externalize). Low self-esteem usually comes from an internal style for bad events. A pessimist might say “I’m stupid,”, “I have no talent at poker”, or “I’m insecure”, whereas an optimist might say “You’re stupid”, “I have no luck at poker”, and “I grew up in poverty”. Similarly, a pessimist might explain good events with “A stroke of luck” or “my teammates’ skill” as opposed to “i can take advantage of luck” or “my skill”.

What about responsibility? You don’t want people to turn into self-aggrandizing blowhards, but if they are depressed then they can’t change their negative behavior. Better to be happy than to be miserable. There is a time and place for pessimism which I will describe later in the essay.

Seligman provides what in my opinion is way too much evidence for the benefits of optimism. Optimists live longer; they’re happier; they have better survival rates for cancer; they perform better in sports; they make more money. If you want to see all the specifics, buy the book. I understand that as a scientist (especially in something like psychology, which a lot of ignorant people dismiss as “not a real science”) he has to back up his claims with evidence, but whatever, you.

Speaking of studies, one cool scientific technique he employed was CAVEing. Seligman and his research cohorts invented a technique called CAVE: Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations. They could determine how optimistic or pessimistic someone was based on their quotes, even if they were uttered half a century ago. The team would analyze them on the dimensions of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Then they could go on to CAVE their public-record commentary (e.g. newspapers) in order to study the long-term effects of optimism or pessimism.

Optimism is especially valid in sports. It seems that optimists and pessimists don’t fare the same – pessimists tend to perform poorly after negative performances, whereas optimists don’t let past performance affect future performance.

How to become an optimist? Change your thoughts!

But pessimism has a place! If there are long-term consequences involved (e.g. money, health), then it pays to be pessimistic. Otherwise, one should be optimistic!

Cover Image Credit: pixabay

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Yes, I Had A Stroke And I'm Only 20

Sometimes bad things happen to good people.

Recently, I read an article on Cosmo that was written by a woman that had a stroke at the ripe old age of 23. For those of you who don't know, that really doesn't happen. Young people don't have strokes. Some do, but it's so incredibly uncommon that it rarely crosses most people's minds. Her piece was really moving, and I related a lot -- because I had a stroke at 20.

It started as a simple headache. I didn't think much of it because I get headaches pretty often. At the time, I worked for my parents, and I texted my mom to tell her that I'd be late to work because of the pain. I had never experienced a headache like that, but I figured it still wasn't something to worry about. I went about my normal routine, and it steadily got worse. It got to the point that I literally threw up from the pain. My mom told me to take some Tylenol, but I couldn't get to our kitchen. I figured that since I was already in the bathroom, I would just take a shower and hope that the hot steam would relax my muscles, and get rid of my headache. So I turned the water on in the shower, and I waited for it to get hot.

At this point, I was sweating. I've never been that warm in my life. My head was still killing me. I was sitting on the floor of the bathroom, trying to at least cope with the pain. Finally, I decided that I needed to go to the hospital. I picked up my phone to call 911, but I couldn't see the screen. I couldn't read anything. I laid down on the floor and tried to swipe from the lock screen to the emergency call screen, but I couldn't even manage that. My fine motor skills were completely gone. My fingers wouldn't cooperate, even though I knew what buttons needed to be pressed. Instead of swiping to the emergency call screen, I threw my phone across the room. "Okay," I thought, "Large muscle groups are working. Small ones are not".

I tried getting up. That also wasn't happening. I was so unstable that I couldn't stay standing. I tried turning off the running water of the shower, but couldn't move the faucet. Eventually, I gave up on trying to move anywhere. "At what point do I just give up and lie on the floor until someone finds me?" That was the point. I ended up lying on the floor for two hours until my dad came home and found me.

During that two hours, I couldn't hear. My ears were roaring, not even ringing. I tried to yell, but I couldn't form a sentence. I was simply stuck, and couldn't do anything about it. I still had no idea what was going on.

When the ambulance finally got there, they put me on a stretcher and loaded me into the back. "Are you afraid of needles or anything?" asked one EMT. "Terrified," I responded, and she started an IV without hesitation. To this day, I don't know if that word actually came out of my mouth, but I'm so glad she started the IV. She started pumping pain medicine, but it didn't seem to be doing anything.

We got to the hospital, and the doctors there were going to treat me for a migraine and send me on my merry way. This was obviously not a migraine. When I could finally speak again, they kept asking if I was prone to migraines. "I've never had a migraine in my whole life," I would say. "Do you do any drugs?" they would ask. "No," I repeated over and over. At this point, I was fading in and out of consciousness, probably from the pain or the pain medicine.

At one point, I heard the doctors say that they couldn't handle whatever was wrong with me at our local hospital and that I would need to be flown somewhere. They decided on University of Maryland in Baltimore. My parents asked if I wanted them to wait with me or start driving, so I had them leave.

The helicopter arrived soon after, and I was loaded into it. 45 minutes later, I was in Baltimore. That was the last thing I remember. The next thing I remember was being in the hospital two weeks later. I had a drain in my head, a central port, and an IV. I honestly didn't know what had happened to me.

As it turns out, I was born with a blood vessel malformation called an AVM. Blood vessels and arteries are supposed to pass blood to one another smoothly, and mine simply weren't. I basically had a knot of blood vessels in my brain that had swelled and almost burst. There was fluid in my brain that wouldn't drain, which was why my head still hurt so bad. The doctors couldn't see through the blood and fluid to operate, so they were simply monitoring me at that point.

When they could finally see, they went in to embolize my aneurysm and try to kill the AVM. After a successful procedure, my headache was finally starting to subside. It had gone from a 10 on the pain scale (which I don't remember), to a 6 (which was when I had started to be conscious), and then down to a 2.

I went to rehab after I was discharged from the hospital, I went to rehab. There, I learned simple things like how to walk and balance, and we tested my fine motor skills to make sure that I could still play the flute. Rehab was both physically and emotionally difficult. I was constantly exhausted.

I still have a few lingering issues from the whole ordeal. I have a tremor in one hand, and I'm mostly deaf in one ear. I still get headaches sometimes, but that's just my brain getting used to regular blood flow. I sleep a lot and slur my words as I get tired. While I still have a few deficits, I'm lucky to even be alive.

Cover Image Credit: Neve McClymont

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What You Need To Understand When I Block You (And I Don't Regret It)

It's not necessarily that I don't want to be a part of your life, but rather that I need to move forward--and you're holding me back.


"Saying yes to happiness means learning to say no to things and people that stress you out" -Thema Davis

We entered each other's lives for a brief moment of time and that time has come to an end. Everyone you meet has a lesson to be learned, and what I learned from you is to be more selective with the people I allow into my life. I shouldn't have let anyone make me feel like I was uncared for and didn't matter--even if it wasn't personal to you, that's how I felt. No matter your intentions, how I feel matters. No excuses. You can't simply reason away feelings with logic, but rather try to understand where I'm coming from. You didn't.

You have different expectations of friendship, and that's okay.

I have different wants and needs in terms of those I keep close to me, and that's okay. What's not okay is operating under the assumption that yours are right and mine are wrong. Or that I'm completely silly for feeling like little more than a convenience, but that's an understatement. You made me feel f*cking awful because I wanted different--it's almost a twisted compliment because the more I like you, the more of an emotional influence you have over me.

I'm not completely in the right either, on the other hand. I had a taste of how nice it was to be in your embrace, so close to you, and for a moment forgot how I empty I felt. I wanted more of that, but you weren't ready for me--and it wasn't warranted how much I expected right off the bat, as if I needed you to fill that emptiness only I should be relied on to fill. You are not responsible for that, not at all.

Over time I became more aware of that inner emptiness when it came to our interactions, so much so that I couldn't take it anymore. For the sake of trying to be more understanding, I put my needs below yours--that wasn't the right answer. You should never place yourself below someone else--or have friends that elicit such a response from you. Once I realized that I had lowered my standards and given up my values in terms of friendship and my own sense of wellbeing, I was completely horrified. I had to remove you from my life to be healthier, happier, and true to myself--I didn't do it for a response.

I didn't do it to get back at you. I did it out of self-love.

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