Reading Room

Learned Optimism – Martin Seligman

readinRoom - Learnedoptimisim“The traditional view of achievement like the traditional view of depression, needs overhauling. Our workplaces and our schools operate on the conventional assumption that success results from a combination of talent and desire. When failure occurs, it is because either talent or desire is missing. But failure can also occur when talent and desire are present in abundance but optimism is missing.”

“The commonness of being knocked flat by troubles, however, does not mean it is acceptable or that life has to be this way. If you use a different explanatory style, you’ll be better equipped to cope with troubled times and keep them from propelling you towards depression. “

“What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism – optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it but without having to dwell in its dark shadows.”

In a nutshell

Cultivation of an optimistic mind-set significantly increases your chances of health, wealth, and happiness.

Martin Seligman is a cognitive psychologist who spent many years clinically testing the idea of “learned helplessness.” His experiments giving mild electric shocks to dogs proved that dogs would give up trying to escape if they believed that, whatever they did, the shocks would keep coming. Another researcher tested the principle on people, using noise instead of shocks, and found that learned helplessness can be engineered in human minds just as easily. Yet the experiments contained an anomaly: As with the dog experiments, one in every three human subjects would not “give up,” they kept trying to press buttons on a panel in an attempt to shut off the noise. What made these subjects different from the others?

Seligman applied the question to real life: What makes someone pick themselves up after rejection by a lover, or another keep going when their life’s work comes to nothing? He found that the ability of some people to bounce back from apparent defeat is not, as we sentimentally like to say, a “triumph of the human will.” Rather than having an inborn trait of greatness, such people have developed a way of explaining events that does not see defeat as permanent or affecting their basic values. Nor is this trait something that “we either have or we don’t”- optimism involves a set of skills that can be learned.

Positive explanatory style

Pessimistic people tend to think that misfortune is their fault. The cause of their specific misfortune or general misery is, they believe, permanent-stupidity, lack of talent, ugliness-therefore they do not bother to change it. Few of us are wholly pessimistic, but most of us will have given pessimism free reign in reaction to particular past events. In psychology textbooks, such reactions are considered “normal.” But Seligman says that it does not have to be this way, that a different way of explaining setbacks to yourself (“explanatory style”) will protect you from letting crises cast you into depression. If you have even an average level of pessimism, Seligman says, it will drag down your success in every arena of life: work, relationships, health.

The author undertook ground breaking work for life insurance company MetLife. Life insurance is considered one of the most difficult of all sales jobs, a real spirit crusher. The company was spending millions of dollars a year training its agents, only to see most of them move on. Instead of the usual criteria by which MetLife hired (career back- ground and so on), Seligman suggested that applicants be hired if they tested well for optimism and explanatory style. The result: Agents hired on this basis did 20 percent better than the regular recruits in the first year, and 57 percent better in the second. They clearly had better ways to deal with the nine out of ten rejections that would make the others give up.

Optimism and success

Conventional thinking is that success creates optimism, but the evidence laid out by Seligman shows the reverse to be true. On a repeat basis optimism tends to deliver success, as the experience of the life insurance agents demonstrated. At the exact same point that a pessimist will wilt, an optimist perseveres and breaks through an invisible barrier.

Not getting through this barrier is often misinterpreted as laziness or lack of talent. Seligman found that people who give up easily never dispute their own interpretation of failure or disparagement. Those who regularly “vault the wall” listen to their internal dialog and argue against their own limiting thoughts, quickly finding positive reasons for rejection.

The value of pessimism

Yet Learned Optimism admits that there is one area in which pessimists excel: their ability to see a situation more accurately. Some professions (financial control and accounting or safety engineering, for example) and all firms could do with a few bring-us-down-to-earth pessimists. In Business @ the Speed of Thought (1999) Bill Gates discusses this very trait, lauding the Microsoft employees who can tell him what is going wrong and do so quickly.

Nevertheless let’s not forget that Gates is also a dreamer par excelence, who at a very young age imagined a world in which every home and office would be using his Windows software. Seligman is clear on the point that success in work and life results when we can both perceive present reality accurately and visualize a compelling future. Many people are good at one and not the other. Someone who wishes to learn optimism must keep the former skill, while becoming a better dreamer. The combination is unbeatable.

Most depression results from thinking badly

It is slightly ironic that Learned Optimism draws much of its data from studies of depression. Before cognitive therapy, depression was always thought of being either “anger turned in upon itself” (Freud) or a chemical malfunction in the brain. However, pioneering cognitive researchers Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck set out to prove that negative thoughts are not a symptom of depression, they cause it. Most of us know this at a common-sense level, but psychotherapy allows us to believe that we are dealing with something beyond our control.

Seligman is a leading authority on sex differences in depression. He says that women are twice as likely to suffer from it because, although men and women experience mild depression at the same rate, how women think about problems tends to amplify them. Rumination on a problem, always connecting it back to some “unchangeable” aspect of ourselves, is a recipe for the blues. Millions of dollars have been spent by America’s National Institute of Mental Health to test this idea that depression, the standard variety, not bipolar or manic – results from habits of thought. Seligman tells us the results in two words: “It does.” Moreover, developing the mental muscles of optimism significantly reduces the likelihood that we will become depressed.

Habitual optimism

This brings us to a bigger question: Why is there so much depression around? Seligman argues that our recent preoccupation with individualism creates its own form of mental shackles. If we are invited to believe in our own endless possibilities, any form of failure becomes devastating. Combine this with the crumbling of previously solid psychological supports-the nation, God, the extended family-and we have an epidemic of depression.

However, while drugs like Prozac can be effective in eliminating it, there is a gap between successfully treated depression and habitual optimism. With the positive explanatory style that Seligman recommends problems are seen as temporary, specific, and external, rather than inevitable expressions of our failure as a person. Cognitive therapy changes the basic way a person sees the world and that altered perception tends to be permanent.

Final comments

Learned Optimism is a product of the sea change that occurred in psychology in the mid-1960s. Until then, a person’s behaviour was considered to be either “pushed” by internal urges (Freudianism) or “pulled” by the rewards or punishments that society provided (behaviourism).

Cognitive therapy, in contrast, showed that people could actually change the way they think, in spite of unconscious leanings or societal conditioning. As Seligman notes toward the end of the book, the upheavals of the modern era, such as mass migration, made rapid personal change necessary; now it is desirable. Yet we are a culture of self-improvers because we know self-improvement is possible-not just experience but psychological science proves it.

Learned Optimism is an important work within the self-help field because it provides a scientific foundation for many claims. It became a bestseller because it attracted readers who normally would consider personal development ideas as, to use the author’s phrase, “metaphysical boosterism.” The book is therefore not simply about optimism (though it may well turn you into an optimist) but about the validity of personal change itself and the dynamic nature of the human condition. Seligman’s latest work, Authentic Happiness, incorporates many of the findings and ideas of Learned Optimism but takes the idea of “positive psychology” further. It is highly recommended.

This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.

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About Tom Cottrell

Tom is a struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
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One Response to Reading Room

  1. Pingback: How to go about thinking | A short stroll to the horizon

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