Learned Optimism

Learned Optimism

How to become an optimist? Change your thoughts!
79
views

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

Popular Right Now

To The Person Who Feels Suicidal But Doesn't Want To Die

Suicidal thoughts are not black and white.
1553816
views

Everyone assumes that if you have suicidal thoughts that means you want to die.

Suicidal thoughts are thought of in such black and white terms. Either you have suicidal thoughts and you want to die, or you don't have suicidal thoughts and you want to live. What most people don't understand is there are some stuck in the gray area of those two statements, I for one am one of them.

I've had suicidal thoughts since I was a kid.

My first recollection of it was when I came home after school one day and got in trouble; and while I was just sitting in the dining room I kept thinking, “I wonder what it would be like to take a knife from the kitchen and just shove it into my stomach." I didn't want to die, or even hurt myself for that matter. But those thoughts haven't stopped since.

I've thought about going into the bathroom and taking every single pill I could find and just drifting to sleep and never waking back up, I've thought about hurting myself to take the pain away, just a few days ago on my way to work I thought about driving my car straight into a tree. But I didn't. Why? Because even though that urge was so strong, I didn't want to die. I still don't, I don't want my life to end.

I don't think I've ever told anyone about these feelings. I don't want others to worry because the first thing anyone thinks when you tell them you have thoughts about hurting or killing yourself is that you're absolutely going to do it and they begin to panic. Yes, I have suicidal thoughts, but I don't want to die.

It's a confusing feeling, it's a scary feeling.

When the depression takes over you feel like you aren't in control. It's like you're drowning.

Every bad memory, every single thing that hurt you, every bad thing you've ever done comes back and grabs you by the ankle and drags you back under the water just as you're about the reach the surface. It's suffocating and not being able to do anything about it.

The hardest part is you never know when these thoughts are going to come. Some days you're just so happy and can't believe how good your life is, and the very next day you could be alone in a dark room unable to see because of the tears welling up in your eyes and thinking you'd be better off dead. You feel alone, you feel like a burden to everyone around you, you feel like the world would be better off without you. I wish it was something I could just turn off but I can't, no matter how hard I try.

These feelings come in waves.

It feels like you're swimming and the sun is shining and you're having a great time, until a wave comes and sucks you under into the darkness of the water. No matter how hard you try to reach the surface again a new wave comes and hits you back under again, and again, and again.

And then it just stops.

But you never know when the next wave is going to come. You never know when you're going to be sucked back under.

I always wondered if I was the only one like this.

It didn't make any sense to me, how did I think about suicide so often but not want to die? But I was thinking about it in black and white, I thought I wasn't allowed to have those feelings since I wasn't going to act on them. But then I read articles much like this one and I realized I'm not the only one. Suicidal thoughts aren't black and white, and my feelings are valid.

To everyone who feels this way, you aren't alone.

I thought I was for the longest time, I thought I was the only one who felt this way and I didn't understand how I could feel this way. But please, I implore you to talk to someone, anyone, about the way you're feeling; whether it be a family member, significant other, a friend, a therapist.

My biggest mistake all these years was never telling anyone how I feel in fear that they would either brush me off because “who could be suicidal but not want to die," or panic and try to commit me to a hospital or something. Writing this article has been the greatest feeling of relief I've felt in a long time, talking about it helps. I know it's scary to tell people how you're feeling, but you're not alone and you don't have to go through this alone.

Suicidal thoughts aren't black and white, your feelings are valid, and there are people here for you, you are not alone.

If you're thinking about hurting yourself please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionhotline.org to live chat with someone. Help it out there and you are not alone.


Cover Image Credit: BengaliClicker

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

If You Need A Pep Talk, Remind Yourself Of These 9 Things Today

We all need a pep talk sometimes.

6
views

My spirit animal for stress is honestly any character that just screams when they are freaking out, what a mood. College can have you feeling helpless but remember these and maybe you won't feel so bad.

1. At least you aren’t on TV

Think about it. Many TV characters royally screw up their lives continuously and I know when I watch, I am always cringing. Most of the time, I even have better solutions for that character and it makes me feel level-headed.

2. Even in sweats, you’re still best dressed

Some of the celebrities wear these crazy outfits that are not flattering or cute whatsoever. Wear your sweats and bare face with confidence, cause I would rather be dressed down than dressed in a giant meat suit. Love you though, Gaga.

3. If you’re forgetting things, it’s OK!

WE WERE ON A BREAK. Ross says it best, we had a month off of school, it’s only natural that we forget some of the stuff we learned last semester. All you can do now is review and try your best.

4. Your dog will always love you

No matter what happens, your dog will always be so excited to see you when you come home.

5. You’ll get your degree

It may seem nearly impossible now, but you can do it. Some of the best things in life take time and patience, with a little hard work added in.

6. Leslie Knope 

If you’re ever feeling bad just watch the first episode where Leslie falls into the pit and remember that at least you didn’t have to do that.

7. Your bed

After a long, hard day, your bed will always welcome you back with warm open arms. Once you climb in, all of your troubles go away.

8. Keep it neutral

Anytime my mind tells me “this is terrible and I don't know how things could get better," I always tell myself, yes, things could be better, but they could also be so much worse.

9. God has your back 

Through every situation, trial, and tribulation, God is always there silently watching his plan unfold. He gives his strongest warriors the scariest battles, for He knows they will conquer.

Related Content

Facebook Comments