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I read the book Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. It was pretty interesting though it really didn't hang together very well; you might just read a section of interest rather than the whole book from front to start.

The first section had a description of the development of Cognitive Psychology which was the novel idea (at the time) that what we think impacts what we feel and our behavior. Seligman started out observing that animals could learn helplessness and stop trying. He and others extended that to humans with a series of tests to determine which are pessimists and which are optimists.

Their test for pessimism / optimism basically determines how a person routinely explains bad events and good events. The three dimensions are personalization, permanence, and pervasiveness. A hard core pessimist will see a bad event as being caused by factors which are pervasive, permanent, and personal. For example (from the book), if a daughter notices that the mirror of mom's car was dinged while they were shopping, her mom might think and say, 'Oh no, Jack (her husband) will be really mad and give me a hard time; I really screwed up; he always tells me to park far from other cars to avoid getting dinged; why couldn't I just walk a little father; I am so lazy.' She blamed herself (personal) with a fault that is permanent and which extends to many other facets of her life (e.g., I am so lazy).

In contrast, an optimist would see the cause of bad events as temporary, limited and external. For an optimist, the damage was caused by some jerk who wasn't paying attention. Oddly enough, according to the metrics which Seligman uses, an optimist sees good events (like getting a very good score on a test) as permanent, pervasive and personal (I am so smart, I can't be stopped) while a pessimist will see them as temporary, limited, and external (I got lucky, the test was over the things I studied).

At the start of the book there are tests which the reader was encouraged to take to determine how pessimistic / optimistic they are (according to the metrics of the book). I personally could not take the test as I found the alternatives presented in the test (blaming myself or the other party for example) as so limited and unnatural that I could not choose. I personally use the explanations for events which run through my mind as a tool to develop whatever feelings are most appropriate at the time and hardly limit myself to the simplistic alternatives they presented. I think there are many more dimensions of possible explanations than those listed. However, it is good that Dr. Seligman focussed on a single problem (pessimism and depression) and its solution.

Seligman goes on to note that optimists are much less likely to get depressed; they also recover from depressing events much more quickly, live longer, are more healthy, and, in general, are more successful. He then presents a program that can help change a persons explanatory style from pessimist to optimist.

While he originally claimed to be teaching optimism, the focus of his methods is mostly against pessimism (learned helplessness) with bad events and its numerous costs including depression. I was happy with that as the explanations used by optimists for good events have hidden costs (in my opinion) which are not fully addressed in the book.

The ABC Exercise

The basic idea of the program is by understanding the ABC's explanations and then addressing the problem with the ABCDE's. First up is A for Adversity or some bad event which is followed by B for Beliefs (or the explanation for the cause of the adversity) and then C for Consequences (such as feeling bad and giving up, not trying to improve things). Once you understand the ABC's, you then keep a diary of bad events as they come up in your life and fill out the ABC's for each event. Over a week you might write about five bad events.

The Extended ABCDE Exercise

Having done that you then practice D (Distracting or Disputing your negative explanations). Distracting is where you block the negative monologue of your thoughts by replacing them with something else. Its advantage is that it is easier (at first) and quicker. One method of distracting is to simply think that 'I don't have time to work out why this happened, but I will sort through it later when there is a better chance to reflect on it.'

Disputing is where you develop counter explanations which are, in virutally all cases, both more positive and more accurate. Disputing the pessimistic explanation of bad events is normally quite easy as there are countless causes to any event (there are numerous chains of events which lead up to each event) and there are no causes which are truly permanent and no justification for blaming anyone. E is for Energizing or the positive effects of a more positive explanation of the cause of events.

Effectiveness of these Techniques

In tests, a program like this has been demonstrated to be as effective as drugs in dealing with depression with the further advantage that its effectiveness increases over time while drugs cease their effectiveness when stopped and may lose their effectiveness over time even when continued / increased. Further, such programs have been shown to prevent depression and increase success at many endeavors. It certainly sounds like a good tool for everyone to use when they encounter difficult situations.

Seligman explains that depression is a serious and growing problem in most of the developed world and tries to address how changes in our culture have caused it. He notes that the lack of connections with others (the weakening of family, religious, national, and other cultural connections) creates increased reliance on the self without the safety net that those connections provided historically. He advocates (as do I) that people perform selfless acts such personal contributions to charities and volunteer work as these give a greater purpose and meaning to our lives. As he notes, pessimism and depression are the likely results of an empty life and the lack of connections to those around us leads to an empty life.

I think an interesting question which is not addressed is why we have the innate ability to become depressed at all. Further, the learned helplessness and its widespread impact including the immune system extends to animals to include dogs and even rats. My suspicion is that depression is intended as a method to help resolve disputes amongst social animals such as wolves, dogs, and humans; there is too great a cost from continuing such competitions to the point of serious injury or death for one or both parties. It probably applies to all mammals and possibly birds though it would be strongest amongst species which are actively social, e.g., it would be stronger amongst dogs than cats.

There are always battles for control in any social group, but the battles need to have a resolution. It does no good to draw out conflicts to the detriment of the group. I imagine that depression is intended to encourage the loser in such battles to submit to the authority of the winner. This is normally followed by acceptance back into the social group (though at a lower status) and ends the depression. However, with our new found independence we don't have the traditional social groups to help us move past the submissive / depressed state. Of course Seligman's advice that we strengthen our connections with the people around us would certainly help with that in any case.

While most people might not want to read Learned Optimism from cover to cover, the separate sections can be useful on their own and it could be a very useful reference.

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This page was last updated on December 23, 2008