Posts Tagged ‘Martin Seligman’

Learned Optimism

November 15, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a book by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. The subtitle is How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Professor Seligman is the father of positive psychology. He felt that psychology had been focused almost exclusively on illness and problems. He thought that more emphasis should be placed on making people feel happy and fulfilled. You should note that there is a relatively new category of healthy memory blogs labeled ‘Positivity.”

Initially, Seligman’s renown was for documenting the finding of learned helplessness. Research with animals discovered that many of these subjects, if offered no way to free themselves from painful stimuli, would conclude that there was nothing to learn other than that they were helpless. So when given an opportunity to avoid or escape from painful stimuli, these animals would fail to do so.

Similar findings resulted with research on human subjects. Fortunately, humans can be asked about why they felt helpless. They explained that they thought that there was no way to avoid the painful or adverse situation. Even when there was a means of avoiding or stopping the situation, they still believed that that there was nothing they could do. So they had in effect learned to be helpless.

It is easy to think of people who live in poor environments with few opportunities for success. They, too, can readily conclude that there is nothing that they can do that they are victims of their environments.

This feeling that there is nothing that can be done to improve the situation provides the foundation for pessimism. On the other hand, optimists regard failures or disappointments as obstacles that they think that they can overcome. In other words, they are highly resilient.,

So what determines whether we are optimists or pessimists depends on how we think.

Seligman writes, “One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think. Research has shown that what distinguishes optimists from pessimists is their explanatory style. That is how they explain the failure they are experiencing. In other words, how they think about or explain the failure is in control of the individual.

The notion that we can control our minds and on how we think and feel has long been a theme of the healthy memory blog. Blog posts on meditation and mindfulness are devoted to teaching us how to have greater control of our minds.

The subsequent posts on “Learned Optimism” will discuss research on this topic and will provide strategies for being optimistic and overcoming negative thinking.

A Positivity Toolkit

September 3, 2019

This post is based on a book by psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson, “Positivity: Discover the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life.”

Tool 1. Be Open. The goal here is to experiment with mindful awareness while carrying out your day. Make your motto “be open.” Temporarily rid your mind of expectations and judgments. These can cloud your ability to be open. Instead, give yourself permission and time to experience the richness of the present moment. No matter what you encounter, no matter what happens, experiment with both awareness and acceptance.

Tool 2. Create High-Quality Connections. Any social interaction—whether with family, co-workers, or someone ahead of you in line—is a chance to create a high-quality connection. According to Jane Dutton, cofounder of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, your moments of connection with others form a dynamic, living tissue that can be either life-giving or life-depleting. High quality connections are life-giving. You recognize them instantly by several telltale signs: they foster mutual appreciation and encourage truly being or doing things together; they recharge your energy and your vitality; they bring real physiological changes. You can literally feel high-quality connections resonate within your body.

Tool 3. Cultivate Kindness. This tool draws from research done by Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The How of Happiness. Give yourself the goal of performing five new acts of kindness on a single day. Aim for actions that really make a difference and come at some cost, such as donating blood, helping your neighbor with her yard work. Assess what those around you might need most. Although some of the kind acts you choose may take some advance planning, make a point to carry them all out on a single day. At the end of the day, take stock. Notice the good feelings that come with increasing your kindness: the positive connection to the person you helped, the fitting sense of pride you get from making a contribution. For lasting impact, make your kindness day a recurring ritual. Be creative each week. Find new ways to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Try it for a few months and see the difference it makes.

Tool 4. Develop Distractions. The suggestion is to make two lists. Label one healthy distractions and the other unhealthy distractions. Ask, “What can I do to get my mind off my troubles?” Then brainstorm, identifying things you already do,as well as new activities you’d like to try. Try to come up with things you can do in good and bad weather, at work, at home, or on the road.

Write down the unhealthy distractions that tempt to you. For each unhealthy distraction that tempts you, come with a healthy alternative: a drink or snack that doesn’t take a toll; a movie, computer game, or song list that’s more uplifting.

Tool 5. Dispute Negative Thinking. This exercise comes from the Penn Resiliency Program. This requires a set of index cards. On each one, write one of your typical negative thoughts. Write down negative thoughts that are realistic and truly yours. Capture your inner critic, that voice in your head that’s skeptical of you, of others, and of everything around you—the voice of ill will.

Then shuffle the cards and pick one at random. Read, then as fast and as thoroughly as you can—dispute it. When you’re satisfied that you’ve shot down your menacing negativity with rapid-fire facts, move on to the next card. Repeat. As you work your way through your negativity deck, let you conviction grow as you become a seasoned disputer. Whenever you find gratuitous negativity lurking in your mind, externalize it by adding it to your deck of cards. Challenge yourself to meet it out in the open—out loud—with your rapid fire facts. Be sure that these are facts and that you are not lying to yourself.

Tool 6. Find Nearby Nature. Locate places you can get to in a matter of minutes that will connect you to green or blue, to trees, water, or sky. Ample research has shown that these boost positivity.

Tool 7. Learn and Apply Your Strengths. One way to learn your strengths is to take a free, online survey that Martin Seligman (the founder of Positive Psychology) and Chris Peterson developed with support from the Values in Action Institute. Allow yourself plenty of time to take this survey: it contains 240 items to measure 24 character strengths. You can find it by visiting Seligman’s website at the University of Pennsylvania’a Positive Psychology Center, or point your browser to http://www.AuthenticHappiness.com. After completing the survey, you’ll receive a report that ranks the 24 strengths by the degree to which they characterize you. The report will also feature your top five strengths, and encourage you to reflect on which ones truly resonate for you, which strengths, when you act on them, make you come alive. This self-reflection is critical. It’s how you locate your “signature” strengths among your top five.

Tool 8. Meditate Mindfully. There are many healthy memory blog posts on this topic. Go to healthymemory.wordpress.com and enter “relaxation response” in the search box.

Tool 9. Meditate on Loving-Kindness. There are also posts on this tool. Go to
healthymemory.wordpress.com and enter loving-kindness in the search box.

Tool 10. Ritualize Gratitude. Being grateful simply requires that you notice the gifts that surround you. If you’re drawn to record your thoughts in writing, consider buying a blank book to be your gratitude journal.

Tool 11. Savor Positivity. You need two things to experiment with savoring. First is a genuine love, joy, pride, or any other flavor of positivity in your life; second a willingness to think differently about it. The key is to think about the event in away that stokes your positivity flames right now. Truly cherish the event, and its benefits to you will grow.

A Word of Caution from HM. This is an enormous toolkit. It easily overwhelms. It’s even more overwhelming when you consider your obligations. Some of the tools here should be helpful in dealing with your obligations. But you need to be selective, picking and choosing what you think is most helpful and what you think you’ll be able to devote your time to.

Decisions: Focusing Illusions

August 17, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Nobel Winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman is among the developers of “bounded rationality”. To choices concerning quality of life, we are reasonable-enough beings but sometimes liable to focus on the wrong things. Our thinking gets befuddled not so much by our emotions as by our “cognitive illusions,’ or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.

Kahneman makes a distinction between two concepts of self. There is our hands-on “experiencing self,” which concentrates on just plain being in the here and now, is absorbed in whatever is going on and how you feel about it without doing much analysis. However, our evaluative “remembering self,” looks back on an experience, focuses on its emotional high points and outcomes, then formulates thoughts about it, not always accurately. Much research shows that memory is biased and unpredictable—more like a patchwork quilt than the seamless tapestry of reality we likely imagine. We don’t so much recall something that happened as reconstruct a facsimile of it. This mental artifact is likely to be either more positive or negative in tone than was the actual event.

The differences in how our experiencing and remembering selves pay attention to may account for seeing paradoxes in our lives. For example, most subjects say that having children is one of life’s greatest satisfactions. But subjects’ diaries show that actual roll-up-your-sleeves parenting was among women’s least enjoyable activities. This apparent contradiction and others likely are explained by the divergent focuses of a person’s two selves. The experiencing self of a tired woman who’s contemplating the wreckage of her slovenly adolescent’s room might well give mothering a poor rating at the moment. However, if parenthood comes up later at a party, her remembering self zeroes in its emotional highs and long term results—that sweet poem on Mother’s Day, the soccer trophy, the college diploma.—rather than on momentary vexations like dirty socks and old pizza crusts. It’s just as well for their progeny that when adults make choices about how to live, they pay more attention to the remembering self’s judgmental voice than to the experiencing self’s “whispers, which say more about their own daily satisfactions.

In a much cited example of the focusing illusion, Kahneman asked some people if they would be happier if they lived in California. Most people thought so because of the climate. Californians assume they’re happier than people who live elsewhere. However, when Kahneman actually measured their well-being, Michiganders and others are just as contented as Californians. The reason is that 99% of the stuff of life, relationships, work, home, recreation, is the same no matter where you are, and once you settle in a place, no matter how salubrious, you don’t think about its climate very much. However, when prompted to evaluate it, the weather immediately looms large, simply because you’re paying attention to it. The illusion inclines you to accentuate the difference between Place A and Place B, making it seem to matter much more than it really does, which is marginal.

Because our remembering self pays attention to our thoughts about our life, rather than to the life itself, it can be difficult to evaluate the quality of our own experience accurately . Social psychologist Norman Schwartz asked one group of subjects, “How much pleasure do you get from your car? Not surprisingly, there was a significant correlation between an autos value and its owner’s perceived enjoyment, so that the remembering selves of BMW and Lexus drivers were more satisfied than those of people who drove Escorts and Camry’s. Then Schwarz probed the immediate reality of the experiencing self by asking another group of subjects a different question: ”How much pleasure did you get from using your car today?” The correlation between the owners’ satisfaction and their cars’ worth vanished. What determined their answers was not the quality or price of their vehicles but of their actual commute that day: whether it was marked by good or bad weather, traffic conditions, or even personal ruminations— in short the experiencing self’s quotidian ups and downs.

The focusing illusion predicts that we’ll exaggerate the importance of a thing just by thinking it about it, as when we ponder a big purchase. Kahneman says, There’s probably much less focusing illusion with pleasures like fresh flowers or a glass of wine.” Because it gives you more fun and bang for you buck, spending five hundred dollars a year on bouquets or Burgundy is a better investment in your well-being than upgrading a major appliance.

Based on recent research on well-being, Kahneman says, “I can imagine a future in which, just as many of us exercise physically, we’ll also exercise mentally for twenty or thirty minutes a day. That’s the kind of world ‘positive psychology’ is looking for. Whether its principles work or not in the long run, I don’t know. All the data aren’t in yet. But it’s clear that getting people to pay attention is a good thing. There’s no question about that.”

As to the ability to focus on this rather than on that gives you control over our experience and well-being, Kahneman says that both the Dalai Lamai and positive psychologist Martin Seligman would agree about the importance of paying attention: “Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”

Positive Psychology

August 21, 2011

Positive Psychology is a movement that was started by the psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman. In a way, this is a bit ironic as he gained earlier recognition in psychology for his research on learned helplessness. In this research he showed that if animals were exposed to an environment of random shocks from which there was no escape, these animals were unable to learn in another setting that they could avoid these shocks. These findings were extrapolated to a human setting in which there are few positive rewards and few opportunities in which people simply give up and stop trying.

Seligman was disturbed by the emphasis placed in clinical and counseling psychology on malfunctioning individuals. He was not arguing that these populations did not deserve attention, but, rather, that attention should also be given to positive behaviors and thought that lead to happiness. The website for Positive Psychology can be found at http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/index.html.

There was a session at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) on Positive Psychology. On the whole, I am impressed with this movement. In other words, I am positive about Positive Psychology. My position should no be surprising given some previous Healthymemory Blog posts (“Continuing to Be Positive After Thanksgiving, “The Second Half of Life,” and “Change Your Brain By Transforming Your Mind.”). Buddhism encourages a positive attitude both to others and yourself. Positive thinking leads to happiness. It can also encourage perseverance and lead to success.

But there are parts of Positive Psychology that give me some concern. Emphasis is placed on finding and developing personal strengths. Although this is certainly good advice, I think it would be a mistake to focus on and develop personal strengths exclusively. If there are certain skills that are important to achieving your goals, but which are skills at which you do not excel, I think it would be a grave mistake to ignore them. For example, it certain mathematical skills would be helpful to achieving your interests, it would be good to focus on them and develop certain proficiencies. Once you have worked at something long enough you can become good enough where you actually enjoy the skill as it becomes a strength. Similarly, if giving presentation or public speaking is important to your pursuits, but you, like many, are fearful of speaking in public, consider addressing that fear. There are programs to help you overcome this fear and speak in public effectively and persuasively. Successful athletes do not usually work on what they are good at, but what they don’t do well, so they become more skilled at their sport. Deliberate practice is the term describing practice that focuses on correcting weaknesses or shortcomings.

Optimism is generally a good disposition, but it can be overdone (See the Healthymemory Blog Post “Can Optimism Be Bad?”). So be positive, but not too positive. Be optimistic, but not too optimistic.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.