Friday, June 5, 2009

Learned Optimism

The average pencil is seven inches long, with just a half-inch eraser - in case you thought optimism was dead. — Robert Brault

In the last article on Learned Helpless, you found out that psychologist, Martin Seligman, was instrumental in discovering the concept of learned helplessness as a graduate student. He became aware that learned helplessness is the result of a pessimistic view of life. His enquiring mind wondered what could be done about pessimism. Since it can be learned, he assumed it could also be unlearned. Dr. Seligman set out to see if this could be done.

Remember that people learn to be helpless by being taught they have no available options for dealing with unpleasant events. This belief is called a pessimistic explanatory style which means a person continually sees the world and self as bleak and unforgiving. How does a person learn to be pessimistic? It’s like most other things we learn. As infants our brains are in hyper learning mode. We are continually checking out the world around us so see how it works. Young brains strongly learn by imitation. Every person I’ve worked with who is pessimistic can easily identify the pessimistic adults who were in their lives when they were children. Like baby animals watching their parents in order to learn how to survive, human children look to older people for learning about the world.

At this point you may be wondering why optimism is so much better than pessimism. After all, some people reason, this world has a lot of heartache and pessimism is a better match with the world as it really is; pessimism is more realistic. Being optimistic in the face of financial meltdowns, starving children, natural disasters and all the things we read and hear about every day seems to be a fool’s errand. Optimism is best typified by the ostrich with his head in the sand — "if I don’t know about bad things, then I won’t have to feel so bad all the time."

Although many people believe that pessimism is a better way to deal with life, research has shown otherwise. As a scientist, Dr. Seligman did not merely think optimism was a good idea, but he and his colleagues studied optimism scientifically to see if there were really any benefits.

The first step was to show that an optimistic explanatory style could cure depression. This step has been a resounding success. Hundreds of studies have shown that cognitive therapy (CBT) is as good as or better than medication for dealing with depression. Additionally, CBT has no side effects, you can’t overdose on it, there are no costs for refills, there is no time limit for when it stops working. Many studies, but not all, also show the combination of medication and CBT is also a workable solution. My experience is that many of my clients, when they have mastered CBT and have fewer depressive symptoms, have been able to significantly decrease their dependence on medication or have even lived their lives without any medication.

Having an optimistic explanatory style has two overwhelming advantages: Optimists lead a better life and optimism can be learned. What is meant by a better life? Basically it refers to quality of life. As we have mentioned in other articles, there are two kinds of happiness. Optimism leads to the type we call the Big H. It is a type of happiness typified by tranquility and peace of mind. This state of being has enormous benefits. Research on thousands of people have show that people who experience this type of happiness actually live longer. Not surprisingly, relationships are much better than those pessimists have. You probably enjoy the company of someone who is upbeat more than someone who is continually whining and complaining about how bad life is.

Dr. Seligman did an interesting piece of research with Metropolitan Life in 1985. As with most companies, Met Life hired life insurance agents based on their skill and experience. Dr. Seligman persuaded the company to try an experiment by hiring people with less skill but who scored high on a test for optimism. After two years, the results were checked and they were stunning. The people who had been hired based on their optimism score outsold more experience agents who were more pessimistic. The optimists outsold the more experienced pessimists by fifty-seven percent!

The one place where you would think that skill would be more important than optimism is in sports. Dr. Seligman worked with the swim team at the University of California, Berkeley. He found optimistic swimmers overcame negative results by trying harder while swimmers who were less optimistic swam even slower after a poor performance. Other researchers have found similar results in other sports such as soccer, baseball, and basketball. In addition to optimism in individual athletes, optimistic teams tend to outperform teams who are more pessimistically driven.

Optimism appears to have a dramatic effect on health. We need to be careful here because there are so many snake oil salespeople out there insisting that your mind can cure all ills. This connection between the "mind and body" is constantly being exploited to the unsuspecting. Bogus cures are the life blood of infomercials. They are to be found in newspapers, the Internet, and even such trusted sources, sad to say, as Oprah Winfrey (See the Newsweek article).

Even though much of the nonsense about the power of the mind says it is research based, when looked at closely it is usually not. If it is, it is poorly done research but this is something the average person would not be able to discern. How your mind affects your health is a new area of research and is already loaded with exploded land mines. Your "mind" has little effect on your life. Rather, it is how you use it. In other words your type of explanatory style is what affects the rest of your body. This is miles away from so-called "positive thinking."

A study of Harvard University students found that many years after graduation, students who were optimistic when they graduated remained more healthy than their more pessimistic classmates when they were checked twenty and forty years later. Studies on the health of pessimistic people — not surprisingly — found they were generally less healthy, died younger, and had more diseases.

Remember to take this information with caution. It definitely does not mean that if you are not as healthy as others your age that you are more pessimistic. The effects of optimism and pessimism are only one the many qualities that affect your health. The big one is your genes you inherited from your parents and many other environmental factors.

A pessimistic thinking style is what causes and maintains depression. Depression is the result of bad learning and is not the fault of the depressed person. Since pessimism and depression are learned, they can be unlearned and new thinking styles can be learned. The process to teach people how to change their explanatory style is called cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

We know that CBT is the method of choice for changing from a learned style of pessimism to a new one of optimism. The CBT variation (There are many effective variations — see The Worry Free Life) promoted by Dr. Seligman is called the The ABCDE Method of Learned Optimism. The five steps are as follows:
  • A - Define the problem: Adversity
  • B - Define the belief system that is interpreting that adversity: Belief
  • C - Define the consequences arising from the adversity and the (in)action: Consequences
  • D - Argue the core belief and effectively dispute the belief that follow the adversity: Disputation
  • E - Use the positive feelings that occur after the negative thoughts have been changed. Energization
Dr. Seligman explains that one of the results of using this five-step approach is to become more persistent because pessimistic people tend to give up more easily. Optimists are continually forging ahead in spite of the most devastating occurrences. For example, optimistic parents continue to find new and better ways for managing their out-of-control children.

These steps also lead to having less stress in one’s life. Surprisingly to some, optimistic people experience less stress than people who identify themselves as "realists." This is because optimists easily overcome minor setbacks and quickly bounce back from major negative events. You can review my article on stress and what to do about it at The Worry Free Life web homepage. At the home page, click on "Downloads" on the left. A new window will open with all the downloads. Click on the fourth one from the top.

You might think that optimists would take more dangerous risks. It is true they are risk takers but the risks are healthy ones — not ones that self sabotage. They see risks as the way of opening up life opportunities and enriching themselves and those around them.

If you are interested in finding out what your explanatory style is, you can take the Learned Optimism Test by clicking here.

Dr. Seligman has written many books. Here are a few that you might be interested in.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). What you can change and what you can’t: The complete guide to successful self-improvement. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). The Optimstic Child. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Free Press.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

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