Optimism

As you explore the Healthful Living website, you will increasingly understand that by choosing healthful living, we are "opting in" to a way of being in life that promotes all health and well being. And, that in fact this is something that we must choose to be a part of because conditions for optimal health do not pervade the world in which we live. We must find them.

From the moment we are born our minds absorb infinite data through which to interpret and make sense of the world. However, the majority of our recollections associate in some way with negative experiences, some inhibition, and some restriction. We hear the word "no" several times more often that we hear the word "yes." The English language that we learn, our verbal template for communicating internal experience to others, is "wired" toward negative emotional expression words describing negative emotions outnumber words describing positive emotions by 2 to 1. It's no wonder that we're so inhibited, that freedom has to be "fought for" and is not inherent, as human spirit would naturally intend.

The world is stressed. No kidding. You may have heard the phrase "Stress will find you, but you must find relaxation." Have you noticed it? Negativity, scarcity thinking, and inhibition are all around us. If we are not paying attention, it's easy to get sucked in. Instead, we need to search out the precepts of possibility, abundance, and hope.

This concept in most notably true with regard to the health of mind.

"The key to success in life (health and happiness) is not so much positive thinking, as it is non-negative thinking." Martin Seligman, Ph.D.

Martin Seligman is the father of the modern field of positive psychology, an area of scientific study and validation of how what's going on in our heads affects most everything that "shows up" for us in our tangible world. One of his best-selling books, Learned Optimism provides life changing insight about this phenomena. He helps readers to understand how health of mind, optimism, is something we can learn, because if we don't, negative thinking will imbue our inner world as it does our outer world.

Understanding Optimism

Seligman explains that what separates optimists from pessimists is the way people explain events and outcomes to themselves. If something good happens to us, how do we explain it? Was it luck? Or was it the result of our own individual talent?

If something bad happens to us, how do we explain that? Is it that conditions just weren't right? Or did the bad event happen because we're somehow flawed as a human? And, if we're flawed, will this flaw then ruin everything else we do?

Certainly you've heard the notion "Life isn't about the events that happen to you, but rather how you respond to those events." We're referring of course to our learned strategies here in our physical world of duality, where choices lead to either positive of negative outcomes in some way. For broader spiritual context, visit the health of spirit section.

Optimists and pessimists attribute the reasons for success and failure differently. Pessimists tend to attribute failure and bad events to permanent, personal, and pervasive factors. Optimists tend to attribute bad events to non-personal, non-permanent, and non-pervasive factors. The opposite is true for good events.
  • Permanent - Factors that will be with you throughout life.
  • Personal - Factors that relate to us as individuals.
  • Pervasive - Factors that affect our efficacy in other parts of our life.
Seligman writes: "Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope. ... Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair."

As we embrace healthful living, having an affinity for one's attributional style (as Seligman has labeled it) will dramatically enhance our ability to "wake up" to our ways, have personal compassion, and gently begin to become at choice over linguistic patterns that either support or impede our entire life experience.

Toward the beginning of Learned Optimism, there is a 48-item questionnaire for readers to determine their own attributional style. Each item presents a brief scenario and two responses.

Some examples are:

The project you are in charge of is a great success;
a) I kept a close watch over everyone's work
b) Everyone devoted a lot of time and energy to it

You get a flower from a secret admirer
a) I am attractive to him/her
b) I am a popular person

You lose your temper with a friend
a) He/she is always nagging me
b) He/she was in a hostile mood

Each question is an indicator of one's attributional style along one of the three dimensions (Permanent, Pervasive, Personal). The questions reflect both good and bad events in life, thus the scale provides a 6-point "reading" of our styles along the three dimensions, each for good and bad events.

Power of Reinforcement or not

Seligman's six areas help us to more specifically understand what we are habitually doing with our language, our personal style of explaining either good or bad events to ourselves. An "overall" score is obtained by subtracting the total "Bad" score from the total "Good" score. Further, the combined scores for Permanence Bad and Pervasiveness Bad equal one's "Hope" score, which Seligman says is perhaps the most important single score on the test. People who make permanent and universal explanations for their problems tend to collapse under pressure, both over time and across varied situations.

As a graduate student at Pennsylvania University, Seligman made a significant discovery that dogs can learn that their actions are futile and become helpless. In a controlled experiment, circumstances were created such that no matter what the dogs did, they could not terminate a shock that was given to them, as such, they gave up. Later, in another circumstance, this "learned helplessness" caused the dogs to not even try to escape the shock (which they could, if they were to try) after all, they had earlier learned that nothing they did would help, that they had no control over their situations.

This is an absolutely amazing discovery. According to Seligman, people, too, can learn to become helpless. And, such negative thinking can lead to depression.

Seligman explains the underpinnings of his research vis a vis the broader world of psychology. He discusses "traditionally" understood paradigms for understanding human behavior and the trials and tribulations he and his fellow researchers faced when they presented the scientific community with their findings. Previously, the scientific world thought that animals only responded according to their environment and according to basic principles of reinforcement if, rewarded, the rat will step on the lever, period. Seligman has demonstrated that animals, humans included, perceive their ability (or lack of it) to control their external events. That is, a dog, when it "gives up" trying to turn off the shock and lays down (learned helplessness) it has learned that is has no control. The notion that "pre-cognitions" directly affect actions created new ground from which to study animal behavior.

Humans also learn whether or not they have control, whether they are cause over events in their lives, and we, too, learn to explain things to ourselves in certain repeated patterns, or styles.

Two ways of looking at life

Optimism correlates with a healthier and happier life, greater success in work, and greater physical and mental achievement, while pessimism weakens the immune system. For example, in one of Seligman's experiments, three sets of rats were given cancer. The amount of cancer injected corresponded to a 50% chance of the rat developing cancer. One group of rats were given conditions where they could control their environment and prevent shocks. One group were given conditions where nothing they did mattered to prevent shocks. And, the control group had nothing special about their conditions and no shocks.

Seligman writes: "...50 percent of the rats not shocked had died, and the other 50% of the no-shock rats had rejected the tumor; this was the normal ratio. As for the rats that mastered shock by pressing a bar to turn it off, 70 percent rejected the tumor. But only 27 percent of the helpless rats, the rats that had experienced uncontrollable shock, rejected the tumor."

Think of the implications of this for we humans. We live in a world where we receive constant messages of inadequacy and hopelessness through mass media. We are being inculcated with the notion that nothing that we can do personally, will have impact on our deeply internal well being that the "answers" and power are outside of ourselves, with some leader, god, or pharmaceutical. Clearly if we are to be healthy and align with the force of life itself (which is only designed and intended to flourish) we must break free of the negative ways and embrace healthful living.

Optimists are healthier. Perhaps because they believe that their health promoting behavior will actually affect their lives, while pessimists may be more inclined to have externals explanations for their health conditions, and thus not feel they have the ability to impact them. Optimists live longer, and have lower levels of physical and mental illness.

Seligman explains that optimism is essential to success in many careers and that a lack of optimism limits one's life. For example, salespeople who explain failure in personal terms often don't want to make more sales calls which leads to lower performance. As such, optimism is a key criterion for hiring for certain positions.

Sports teams, also, can develop optimistic or pessimistic ways of explaining poor performance. The book provides several examples of great (optimistic) perseverance. Matt Biondi, the great U.S. Olympic swimmer (and high school classmate of mine) was expected to win 7 gold metals in Seoul in 1988. After winning a silver and bronze in his first two events, he rebounded to win gold in his final five races. It's this kind of perseverance that optimists demonstrate Seligman writes.

Using a technique called CAVE (Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations), the explanatory styles and optimistic/pessimistic dispositions of most anyone (at any point in time) can be determined. In Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman explains that most political elections tend to be won by the more optimistic candidate. Seligman successfully predicted several races in the 1988 elections, including the presidential primaries, the presidential election, and 25 of 29 senate races.

Pessimism on the other hand correlates with higher levels of disease, unhappiness, and particularly, depression. Seligman makes the case that pessimism is among the causes of depression. He is completely at odds with Freud's view on the subject and points to the fact that cognitive therapy (the most successful approach for treating depression) essentially is a process of changing the patient's explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic. He notes further that it's effective because the approach takes advantage of "the newly legitimized powers of the self."

How does one become an optimist?

Seligman's research indicated 3 areas that are instrumental in shaping the explanatory style of children.

Mother's explanatory style: Scenarios are presented where a child overhears his mother making permanent, pervasive, and personal analyses of displeasing events that happen around the house. Seligman's research indicates that young children listen to what their primary caretaker says about causes of event, and tends to make this style their own.

Adult Criticism: Teachers and Parents: In school, boys who fail are routinely told things like "You weren't paying attention," or "You didn't try hard enough." These are temporary and specific. Girls are treated differently. They are more likely to hear "You're not very good at arithmetic," or "You always hand in sloppy papers." These are permanent and pervasive explanations. Such severe gender biased behavior is an injustice to our society and only perpetuates antiquated stereotypes about the "roles" boys and girls, men and women.

Children's Life Crises: Early losses and traumas in life will significantly effect whether one develops a personal theory that bad events can be changed or overcome, or if they are in fact, permanent and pervasive.

Learning Optimism

Learned Optimism provides straightforward guidelines to interrupting pessimism and embracing optimism. He also notes that optimism isn't always best. A pilot, for example, shouldn't be "optimistic" that the wings of his plane won't ice up and fail to de-ice them before a flight. And, depressed people actually have a more accurate perception of reality than optimistic people. Pessimism is useful because it forces us to confront situations where we really have no effectiveness and change course.

To improve optimism, Seligman outlines a process called ABCDE, which is quite familiar to the approach applied by cognitive psychological counseling (Martin's opinion). Seligman writes: "When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly lead to beliefs. And, these beliefs .... have consequences."

The D is for "disputation," where we find evidence against the negative beliefs, alternatives to our negative reasoning. By challenging what we've arrived at in our minds as a result of the adversity, we can limit the implication of the beliefs we've fostered as a result. Seligman says that much of the skill of dealing with setbacks (adversity) consists of learning how to dispute the first thoughts we have in reaction to a setback.

This is of prime importance to any therapist who aims to help a patient suffering from depression. Hypnotherapists can create specific inductions that foster the development of this early disputation response thus targeting some of the seeds that perpetuate the continuance of many of the symptoms of depression. Certain NLP pattern breaking techniques may also prove effective for helping clients employ Seligman's suggested process.

The E is for "energization." After we have disputed our false beliefs, negative beliefs (and greater touched "reality"), we feel energized.

Here's an example of the ABCDE technique in action (in Teaching):

Adversity: I haven't been able to break through the apathy some of my students feel toward learning.

Belief: Why can't I reach these kids? If I were more dynamic or more intelligent or more creative, I would be able to excite them about learning. If I can't reach the kids who need the help most, then I'm not doing my job. I must not be cut out for teaching.

Consequences: I don't feel like being creative. I have little energy and I feel depressed and dejected.

Disputation: It doesn't make sense to base my worth as a teacher on a small percentage of my students. The truth is that I do excite a majority of my students, and I spend a great deal of time planning lessons that are creative and allow the students as much individuality as possible. At the end of the term, when I have more time, I can organize a meeting with other teachers in the school who face this same problem. Maybe as a group we will be able to come up with some ideas that will help us reach the apathetic students.

Energization: I feel better about the work I do as a teacher and hopeful that new ideas can be generated through a discussion with other teachers.

Seligman explains and outlines a step-by-step process for readers to engage in the ABCDE process. Initially, just noticing their ABC's, then later working on D's and beginning to sense E (energization). It's a gradual process, but with repetition Seligman believes that anyone can learn to be an optimist.

It's important to note that Seligman is not advocating the complete relinquishment of personal responsibility. That is, not always blaming others for our failures. It is important to own up to our screw ups and take responsibility for our actions. Therefore, we should not blanketly change our beliefs from internal to external with of course, the exception of depression, as depressed people often take on more responsibility for bad events than is actually warranted.

It's important to own up to our failures because, Seligman says, that people will not change if they do not accept responsibility for their behavior. Further, internality is not as important as permanence. If we believe that the cause of our screw up is permanent stupidity, lack of talent, etc. we won't act to change it. If, however, we believe the cause is temporary a bad mood, too little effort, we will act to change it. An internal style is important for us to take personal responsibility, but more importantly, we must have a temporary style for explaining bad events so that we can healthfully navigate the typical trails and tribulations of life. Seligman recommends developing a healthy and flexible optimism. Doing so should allow a person to live a fuller and richer life.

Understanding health of mind

Comprehending optimism provides tremendous insight in the dispositions of humans and our internal thought processes. The constructs of optimism and pessimism are so life impacting that choosing healthful living should have a strong understanding of the factors that influence the creation and perpetuation of the varied explanatory styles.

If we aim to be healthier, be it mentally or physically, we "holistic minded" individuals must consider our own, self directed, efforts toward betterment. Self-talk, our inner language, is the greatest constant influence upon our disposition, or mood, which directly influences one's healing terrain. Helping yourself identify and shift patterns of language that currently negatively impact your life is a core objective for the health of mind.

(Writer's further note)

Studying Learned Optimism was delightfully affirming of my own optimistic style. On Seligman's scale, a total score of 8 or above is very optimistic. I scored an 11. I found that while reading the book, I was constantly flushed with memories from throughout my life. I remembered a time in fourth grade when I accidentally knocked over a building block structure I was creating. I explained to myself, "Oh well, I wasn't being careful enough," a temporary (changeable) explanation.

The book also makes me look at my own parents and wonder how I became so optimistic. It seems, counter to Seligman's findings, that I've taken on the style of my father, not (thank goodness) my mother. I've also gained insight into some great screw ups in my life, and how my overly optimistic style has gotten me into greater trouble than I might otherwise have seen if I'd been more prudent. This then, demonstrates a great learning point from Learned Optimism, that flexible optimism is key.

I may wish to write to Seligman to share my opinion that flexibility may come as the result of one's experiences with over optimism. That, after realizing the sometimes blinding implications of optimism, one can learn to self calibrate. I would, however, change nothing, as my optimism has led me to great happiness and health in this life attributes I forever wish for others.
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