Learned Optmimism-How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Glass half full or half empty?When you look at this image do you see a glass half empty or a glass half full?  I really have no patience for talk about positive thinking.  I know it to be like my frequent visits to my hair dresser to eliminate my graying hair.  You can apply whatever topical agent you like, but before you know it, the grey comes right back out again at the roots.  So it is in my mind with positive thinking.  You try to overlay your real feelings with smiley faces but the minute life dishes out the thing you hate, you still lose hope and good humor.  Knowing that you can imagine my surprise when I find this book, Learned Optimism, by author and scientist Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D which purports to move depression out and optimism in, and I love it.  Even the more suprising because I found him as a recommended piece of reading in last weeks book review of The Happiness Project, which you might remember, I didn’t love.

Who is the Writer?

With twenty years clinical research behind him, and as a past president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Seligman is a leading motivational expert and an authority on what he calls “learned helplessness”and was the leader of the movement to Positive Psychology.  He has been an active researcher and writier and currently is professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.  His is the first book I am reviewing by a man of science.   First published in 1990, this book is now in its’ second edition.

Why did he Write the book?

In his introduction to the second edition Dr. Seligman writes “I have spent my entire professional life working on helplessness and ways to enlarge personal control.”  He tells a very personal story of being a boy of 13 when his father suffered a stroke.   It was some time before he was allowed to visit his dad and when he did he tells us that as his mother tried to comfort his father in his condition with talk of God and the hereafter his Dad responded with “I don’t believe in God.  I don’t believe in anything after this.  All I believe in is you and the children and I don’t want to die” Martin Seligman identifies this moment as his introduction to “the suffering that helplessness engenders.  Seeing my father in this state, as I did again and again until his death years later, set the direction of my quest.  His desperation fueled my vigor.”

Inspired to work on the issue of helplessness and its’ connection to depression it was an epiphany for him when he realized that he wasn’t working on pessimism, but optimism.  As a clinical psychologist his training and work had always focused on what was wrong with individuals.  This work took him in an entirely new direction-what was already right and how to make it even better.  Thus he focuses all his efforts on creating optimism and a positive life view in people of all ages, genders and jobs in his book.

Who is this Book For?

This isn’t for the beach unless you are a student of psychology or someone with more than a passing interest in depression.  The good doctor doesn’t write too thickly in his style, but it has very clinical leanings with numerous case studies and proofs. A very scientific method shows up in the layout of the information.

Is this book for you?  Answer this question-Are you someone who is likely to be incapacitated when something bad happens?  Do you think “It was meant to be?” There is nothing to be done”.

Or do you respond to trials with the Scarlett O’Hara refrain of “Tomorrow is another day”?

If you chose the former, than this book has some very powerful information and applicable science in it for you.  Just don’t get bogged down in the clinical material.

The Premise he offers

Dr. Seligman begins by researching and proving that helplessness is learned and conditioned in us.  The revelation in his early work is that helplessness could be taught but also untaught.   From here he went on to address the inborn piece of optimism.  Why are some of us more resilient?  Why do some of us always the cup half full while some of us see it as half empty?  Much time is devoted in this book in diagnosing who is optimistic and who is pessimistic.  Not content to diagnose he goes on to explore the merits of both positions and also gives the reader tools to ‘learn optimism’.

What I’m Taking from this Book and Putting into my Tool Kit

My toolkit will now include a scientifically proven method for assisting myself and others in reframing life’s’ kicks to the gut.   There is a quicker and more effective bounce back to engaged living.  Dr. Seligman has also provided me with new markers in what pessimistic talk looks like.  He outlines what to listen for when identifying a pessimistic reaction that can lead to depression. There is also quite a bit of information on dealing with children and assisting them with pessimism in reframing what they experience and the importance of the language we are using with them.

Let me give you a taste.  In his quiz to diagnose pessimism in kids he offers this question:

You have been trying to get into a club and you don’t get in.

A) I don’t get along well with other people

B)I don’t get along well with the people in the club

If you chose A, that is a pessimistic answer because it is pervasive.  It is a blanket statement that isn’t dependant on situation and it places all the responsibility on your shoulders.  If you chose B, that is an optimistic answer. It is a one time rejection, with the possibility that you would get into another club, and some blame falling on the outside of you (the people in the club are also responsible for this)

I loved this Part

I loved having grown in my understanding of the power of how we think.  Investigating our thinking, ala Byron Katie (Is it true?); so that when a bad thing happens it doesn’t become a predictor for everything.  Just because I yelled at my kids this morning doesn’t make me a bad mother.  That is the pessimistic label.  The optimistic thought would be-I yelled at my kids this morning but I am tired and stressed.  They were pushing my buttons.  I will do better next time.

I can, in fact we can, stop the automatic tape that leads us to a depression and more poor functioning and “reframe” the setbacks in life so we can deal with them.

Words of Caution

Seligman is a terrific scientist and he covers it all.  He even addresses the idea that not all pessimism is bad.  He tells us that  studies show that depressed people actually see reality correctly while nondepressed people distort reality in a self serving way.  So why choose optimism if it is merely a way to delude yourself? He fully explores whether or not his push to optimism is misguided.  I appreciated his balanced approach.

What Bugged Me

The only thing that ‘bugged’ me was the tiresome (for me) clinical proofs which were exhaustive and by page 157 I began to leaf ahead to more interesting things.  He applies his theories on the power of optimism to how Met Life hires its’ salesman (sales being the job requiring the most optimism if you want to be successful because of the amount of rejection you face), to children, to schooling scenarios, National Baseball, Basketball, our health and even Presidential elections.

Wrap Up

I liked this book so much that although I had taken this out from the library, I bought a copy.  It has optimism tests and depression tests in it and chapters on practical applications to become more optimistic and I will be using it in my life, my family’s life and in my work with my clients.  Not a casual read, but if this subject has resonance for you I believe there is a lot of valuable information in here.

Rating:  4/5

More information can be found at http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx