Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Depression is nothing more than its symptoms. It is caused by conscious negative thoughts. There is no deep underlying disorder to be rooted out: not unresolved childhood conflicts, not our unconscious anger, and not even our brain chemistry. Emotion comes directly from what we think: Think “I am in danger” and you feel anxiety. Think “I am being trespassed against” and you feel anger. Think “Loss” and you feel sadness.

Depression, therefore, is merely a habit of thought. Change thought habits and cure depression. This was the general thinking in the 70’s of Aaron Temkin Beck, a psychologist whose theories are widely used in the treatment of clinical depression, and whom was regarded as the father of cognitive therapy. His work greatly influenced Martin Seligman’s theories and work in Positive Psychology. In Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, the author, Martin E.P. Seligman, makes a case for depression being a combination of learned helplessness and one’s explanatory style.Learned helplessness can be defined as a person (or animal) having learned that it is helpless in an aversive situation, believing that it has no control over the situation it gives up trying. Explanatory style is how one explains to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative — optimistic or pessimistic. There are three components to an explanatory style.

  1. Personal (internal vs. external)

  2. Permanent (stable vs. unstable)

  3. Pervasive (global vs. local/specific)

According to Seligman, depression is linked to how we interpret situations and what the voice in our mind tells us about it. Pessimists are more susceptible to depression because they tend to think (ruminate) on things more extensively than optimists. They also tend to have a negative explanatory style, which may be the cause of their pessimism, not the result. The pessimistic explanatory style tends to view things as personal (this is my fault as opposed to the fault of an external cause), permanent (as opposed to temporary), and pervasive (the sense that the adversity is a global belief, “I’m just stupid”, rather than a circumstance of a specific situation, “I didn’t know the answer to the particular question”).

Pessimists ruminate and see a situation as helpless, they interpret a threat as permanent, pervasive, and personal, which starts a chain reaction, a loop of negative thought. Those who don’t ruminate suffer depression less often, even if pessimistic. Optimists can be ruminators as well, but suffer less from depression because their style is not personal and permanent. Optimistic non-ruminators are most resilient.

If depression is a disorder of thinking, pessimism and rumination stoke it. The tendency to analyze feeds right into it; the tendency to act breaks it up.

Cognitive therapy seeks to change the way depressed patients think about failure, defeat, loss, and helplessness through the use of 5 tactics:

  1. Learn to recognize the automatic thoughts flitting through your consciousness at the times you feel worst.

  2. Learn to dispute the automatic thoughts by marshaling contrary evidence.

  3. Learn to make different explanations, called re-attributions, and use them to dispute your automatic thoughts.

  4. Learn how to distract yourself from depressing thoughts.

  5. Learn to recognize and question the depression-sowing assumptions governing so much of what you do.

Why Does Cognitive Therapy Work?

On a mechanical level, cognitive therapy works because it changes explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic, and the change is permanent. It gives you a set of cognitive skills for talking to yourself when you fail.

At a philosophical level, cognitive therapy works because it takes advantage of newly legitimized powers of the self. In an era when we believe the self can change itself, we are willing to try to change habits of thought which used to seem as inevitable as sunrise. Cognitive therapy works in our era because it gives the self a set of techniques for changing itself. The self chooses to do this work out of self-interest, to make itself feel better.

Value of the Pessimist

Being a pessimist isn’t all gloom and doom, it has it’s uses. There is evidence that depressed people are wiser and that though sadder they can have a more realistic view of circumstances. Pessimists historically are more cautious which was an important element to the survival of the human race, the problem is in today’s world we don’t have as many threats.

Optimists are more resilient because they see themselves having control even in situations in which they do not. Pessimists are less resilient because they see themselves not having control even in situations in which they do. Pessimism can heighten our sense of reality and accuracy of situations. Creating a personal or corporate budget would be an example where a pessimistic (more realistic) view of resources, costs, and expectations may be desirable. However, clearly pessimism comes with the greater risk of depression, melancholy, and stagnation. Therefore there is an argument for a balance of optimism and pessimism for the most successful life.

Like the successful company, we each have in us an executive who balances the counsels of daring against the counsels of doom. When optimism prompts us to chance it and pessimism bids us to cower, a part of us heeds both. This executive is sapience (wisdom, understanding). It is this entity to whom is addressed the most basic point of this book: By understanding the single virtue of pessimism along with its pervasive, crippling consequences, we can learn to resist pessimism’s constant callings, as deep-seated in brain or in habit as they may be. We can learn to choose optimism for the most part, but also to heed pessimism when it is warranted.

The Timing Impact

Being aware of our most vulnerable times can help us stay ahead of pessimism or depression. Reserve certain time windows to do your most productive thinking and planning.

All of us— extreme pessimists and extreme optimists alike— experience both states. Explanatory style probably has built-in flux. Circadian cycles ensure occasional mild depression. Depression has a rhythm through the day and, at least among some women, through the month. Typically we are more depressed when we wake up, and as the day goes on we become more optimistic. But superimposed on this is our BRAC, our Basic Rest and Activity Cycle. As noted previously, it hits its lows at roughly four in the afternoon and again at four in the morning. Its highs occur in late morning and early evening, although the exact timing varies from person to person. During the highs, we are more optimistic than usual. We formulate adventurous plans: our next romantic conquest, the new sports car. During the lows, we are more inclined to depression and pessimism than usual. We see the stark realities that our plans entail: She’d never be interested in someone who is divorced and has three kids.

Origins of Optimism

On the origins of optimism Seligman writes:

Explanatory Style has a sweeping effect on the lives of adults. It can produce depression in response to everyday setbacks, or produce resilience even in the face of tragedy. It can numb a person to the pleasures of life, or allow him to live fully. It can prevent him from achieving his goals, or help him exceed them.Explanatory style develops in childhood. The optimism or pessimism developed then is fundamental. New setbacks and victories are filtered through it, and it becomes an entrenched habit of thinking.

Seligman shows evidence that children are born with hope, the reason we don’t see child murders or suicides is because of this innate hope, they don’t suffer from hopelessness. However, somewhere along journey to puberty nature is trumped by nurture and learned hopelessness can set in. This is largely due to the adopted explanatory style. Seligman poses the following as the sources of our explanatory styles:

  1. Mother’s Explanatory Style. As children we take cues from what we hear and will adopt the style of our mother’s dialog; how she talked to herself and how she explained things to us. Interestingly there isn’t a strong connection to the Father’s explanatory style.

  2. Adult Criticism (Teachers and Parents). “When your children do something wrong, what do you say to them? What do their teachers say to them? As noted, children listen carefully not just to content but to form, not just to what adults say to them but how adults say it. This is particularly true of criticisms. Children believe the criticisms they get, and use them to form their explanatory style.”

  3. Children’s Life Crises. Children distill their explanatory style out of major crises in their lives; such as experiencing a family financial crisis (the Depression), divorce, or loss of a parent at a young age.

To summarize the three influences:

First, the form of the everyday causal analyses he hears from you— especially if you are his mother: If yours are optimistic, his will be too. Second, the form of the criticisms he hears when he fails: If they are permanent and pervasive, his view of himself will turn toward pessimism. Third, the reality of his early losses and traumas: If they remit, he will develop the theory that bad events can be changed and conquered. But if they are, in fact, permanent and pervasive, the seeds of hopelessness have been deeply planted.

Learning Your ABC’s

On leading an optimistic life, Seligman sums it up as a matter of tracking your ABC’s: Adversity, Belief, and Consequences.

When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may become so habitual we don’t even realize we have them unless we stop and focus on them. And they don’t just sit there idly; they have consequences. The beliefs are the direct causes of what we feel and what we do next.

We meet with adversity, we have established beliefs, those beliefs directly impact the consequences of each adversity. Of the ABC’s, we have most control over the Beliefs, the consequences will flow out from there. To combat a pessimistic belief system Seligman offers two options: distract yourself or dispute them. Distracting yourself can be as simple as snapping a rubberband you wear around your wrist when you find yourself getting overwhelmed in rumination which may keep you from taking action. Another option would be scheduling time later in the day to think through whatever adversity you may be experiencing. Usually you can approach the adversity more objectively if scheduled for a later time, removing yourself from the initial emotional reaction. Disputing beliefs is more difficult but more successful long term. This involves investigating the root of the belief and building a case to prove it wrong, or if it is accurate, looking objectively at ways to change the consequences. Disputing can be broken down to 4 steps: Evidence, Alternatives, Implications, and Usefulness.

Almost nothing that happens to you has just one cause; most events have many causes. Pessimists have a way of latching onto the worst of all these possible causes— the most permanent, pervasive, and personal one.

Using disputation techniques will help pessimists focus on alternatives and build a case of evidence to improve their outlook on circumstances. Ask yourself what are the implications if your belief is correct — worse case scenario. Is it worth the anxiety and rumination? Lastly, investigate how useful your belief is; even if accurate is it worth maintaining a belief that leaves you depressed and anxiety ridden? Detail ways you could possibly change the belief into one with a more positive — or less negative — outlook.

Learned optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world but through the power of “non-negative” thinking.

It’s clear that the cognitive therapy approach is anchored in a belief that our mentality directly affects our physicality. Research shows links between one’s immune system and whether they have a pessimistic or optimistic viewpoint. To live a better life then, we must take a holistic approach to the health of both mind and body. We must train and exercise the mind toward optimism and mental resilience as we might train the body to be more resilient to physical conditioning.

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