Posts Tagged ‘Seligman’

Flexible Optimism

November 24, 2019

This the tenth post in the series of posts based on Dr. Martin Seligman’s important book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. This is also the last post planned for this book. Seligman waxes philosophically in this final chapter titled “Flexible Optimism.”

As was mentioned previously in this book, depression has been on the rise since World War II. Today young people are ten times likelier to suffer severe depression than their grandparents were, and depression takes a particularly heavy toll among women and the young. There is no sign that this epidemic of depression is decreasing.

One of the reasons Seligman offers for this problem he terms the waxing of the self. He writes that the society we live in exalts the self. It takes the pleasures and pains, the successes and failures of the individual with unprecedented seriousness. Our wealth and our technology have culminated in a self that chooses, that feels pleasure and pain, that dictates action, that optimizes or satisfices. He writes that we are now a culture of maximal selves. We freely choose among an abundance of customized goods and services and reach beyond them to grasp more exquisite freedoms.

The second reason Seligman offers for this problem is what he terms “The Waning of the Commons.” He writes that the life committed to nothing larger than itself is a meager life. Human beings require a context of meaning and hope. We once had ample context, and when we encountered failure, we could could pause and take our rest in that setting—our spiritual furniture—and revived our sense of who were were. He calls this larger setting the commons.

HM shares Seligman’s concerns. However, he makes no mention of the means of addressing both these concerns. There is no mention of meditation or mindfulness anywhere in the book. And they provide the best means of addressing these concerns. There are many healthy memory posts on these topics. Use the search block at
healthymemory.wordpress.com to find them.

There are ample data indicating how meditation aids individual health. HM would like to see data comparing any differences in pessimism between people who meditate daily and a comparable sample that does not meditate. And the practice of mindfulness is one of the best, if not the best of facilitation positive interactions and concerns among individuals.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2019. 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.

Learning to Argue with Yourself

November 23, 2019

This the ninth post in the series of posts based on Dr. Martin Seligman’s important book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. As we all likely have argued with others, to be optimistic we also need to argue with ourselves. There are four important ways to make disputations convincing:

*Evidence?
*Alternatives?
*Implications?
*Usefulness?

The best way of disputing a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect. Fortunately, much of the time we will have facts on our side, since pessimistic reactions to adversity are typically overreactions. So we adopt the role of detective and ask, “What is the evidence for this belief?”

Seligman notes that it is important to see the difference between this approach and the so-called “power of positive thinking.” Positive thinking often involved trying to believe upbeat statements such as “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence. Many educated people, trained in skeptical thinking, cannot abide this kind of boosterism. In contrast, learned optimism is about accuracy.

Research has shown that merely repeating positive statements to yourself does not raise mood or achievement very much, if at all. It is how you cope with negative statements that has an effect. Usually negative beliefs that follow adversity are inaccurate. Most people catastrophize: From all the potential causes, they select the one with the direct implications. One of your most effective techniques in disputation will be to search for evidence pointing to the distortions in you catastrophic explanations. Most of the time you will have reality on your side. Seligman writes, “Learned optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world but through the power of ‘non-negative’ thinking.”

Rarely nothing that happens to you has just one cause; most events have many causes. Should you do poorly on a test, all of the following might have contributed: how hard the test was, how much you studied, how fair the professor is, how the other students did, how tired you were and so forth. Pessimists typically latch onto the worst of all the possible causes—the most permanent, pervasive, and personal ones.

Disputation usually has reality on its side. Since there are multiple causes, why latch onto the most insidious one? Rather, latch onto the most innocuous one. Focus on the changeable (not enough time spent studying), the specific (this particular exam was uncharacteristically hard), and the non-personal (the professor graded unfairly) causes. You may have to push hard at generating alternative beliefs, latching onto possibilities you are not fully convinced are true. Remember that much pessimistic thinking consists of just the reverse.

Of course, facts won’t always be on your side. The negative belief you hold about yourself may be correct. In this situation, the technique to use is decatastrophizing. You ask yourself, even if this belief is correct, what are its implications? How likely, you should ask yourself are the awful implications? Once you ask if the implications are really that awful, repeat the search for evidence.

Sometimes the consequence of holding a belief matter more than the truth of the belief. Is the belief destructive? Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. We can all sympathize with that sentiment, but the belief that the world should be fair may cause more grief than it’s worth. Sometimes it is very useful to get on with your day, without taking the time to examine the accuracy of your beliefs and then disputing them. Here the example Seligman provides is a technician doing bomb demolition. He might think, “This could go off and I might be killed”—with the result that his hands shake. In this case Seligman recommends distraction over disputation. Whenever you have to perform now, you will find distraction the tool of choice.

Another tactic is to detail all the ways you can change the situation in the future. Even if the belief is true now, is the situation changeable? If so, how can you go about changing it?

How to Be Optimistic

November 22, 2019

This the eighth post in the series of posts based on Dr. Martin Seligman’s important book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. This post is taken from the chapter titled “The Optimistic Life.” The first question is when to deploy optimism? There are times not to use the techniques that are about to be discussed.
Consider
*If your goal is to plan for a risky and uncertain future, do not use optimism
*If your goal is to counsel others whose future is dim, do not use optimism initially.
*If you want to appear sympathetic to the troubles of others, do not begin with optimism, although using it later, once confidence and empathy are established, may help

The model developed for being optimistic is known as the ABC model as was developed by the pioneering psychologist, Albert Ellis. ABC is an acronym for
Adversity
Belief
Consequences

Consider the following examples:

Adversity: My husband was supposed to give the kids they bath and put them to bed, but when I got home from my meeting they were all glued to the TV.

Belief: Why can’t he do what I ask him? is it such a hard thing to given them their bath and put them to bed? Now I’m going to look like the heavy when I break up their little party.

Consequences: I was really angry with Jack and started yelling without first giving him a chance to explain. I walked into the room and snapped off the set without even a “hello” first. I looked like the heavy.

Adversity: I decided to join a gym, and when I walked into the place I saw nothing but firm, toned bodies all around me.

Belief: What am I doing here? I look like a beached whale compared to these people! I should get out of here while I still have some dignity,

Consequences: I felt totally self-conscious and ended up leaving after fifteen minutes.

Adversity: After being on a diet for a couple of weeks she goes out for drinks with some friends and starts wolfing down snacks. Immediately afterward she feels she has “ruined” her diet.

Consequences: She decides to really make a pig of herself and eats a cake in the freezer.

Once you are aware of your pessimistic beliefs there are two general ways to deal with them. The first is simply to distract yourself when they occur—try to think of something else. The second is to dispute them. Disputing is more effective in the long run, because successfully disputed beliefs are less likely to recur when the same situation presents itself again.

Here is an example Seligman provides regarding distraction. “..,think about a piece of apple pie with vanilla ice cream. The pie is heated and the ice cream forms a delightful contrast in taste and temperature. You probably find that you have almost no capacity to refrain from thinking about the pie. But you do have the capacity to redeploy your attention. Think about this one again. Got it. Mouth-watering? Now stand up and slam the palm of your hand against the wall and shout “STOP!” The image of the pie disappeared, didn’t it? This is one of several simple but highly effective thought-stopping techniques used by people who are trying to interrupt habitual thought patterns. Some people ring a loud bell, others carry a three-by-five card with the word STOP in enormous red letters. Many people find it works well to wear a rubber band around their wrists and snap it hard to stop their ruminating. It is good to combine one of these physical techniques with a technique called attention shifting. To keep your thoughts from returning to a negative belief after interruption, direct your attention elsewhere. Actors do this when they must suddenly switch from one emotion to another. When something disturbing happens and you find thoughts hard to stop, say to yourself, ‘Stop. I’ll think this over later.’ Writing troublesome thoughts down the moment they occur and setting a later time to think about them works well; it takes advantage of the reason ruminations exist—to remind you of themselves—and so undercuts them. If you write them down and set a time to think about them, they no longer have any purpose, and purposelessness lessens their strength.”

Although ducking our disturbing beliefs can be good first aid, a deeper more lasting remedy is to dispute them: Give them an argument. Go on the attack. By effectively disputing the beliefs that follow adversity, you can change your customary reaction from dejection and giving up to activity and good cheer. Consider the following:

Adversity: i recently started taking night classes after work for a master’s degree. I got my first set of exams back and I didn’t do nearly as well as I wanted.

Belief: What awful grades. I no doubt did the word in the class. I’m just stupid and I’m to to be competing with young kids.

Consequences: I felt totally dejected and useless. I was embarrassed I even gave it a try, and decided to withdraw from my courses and be satisfied with the job I have.

Disputation: I’m blowing things out of proportion. I hoped to get all As, but I got a B, a B+, and a B-. Those aren’t awful grades. I may not have done the best in the class, but I didn’t do the worst either. The guy next to me had two Ds and a D+. The fact that I’m forty doesn’t make me any less intelligent than anyone else in the class. I have a full time job and a family. I think that given my situation I did a good job on my exams.

Consequently, he does not withdraw from the class and feels better about himself.

Optimism and Good Health

November 21, 2019

This post is the seventh in a series of posts based on Dr. Martin Seligman’s important book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. There are four ways the theory of learned helplessness strongly suggests that optimism should benefit health.

The first follows from the research of Madelon Visintainer’s findings that learned helplessness in rats made them more susceptible to tumor growth. This research was bolstered by more detailed work on the immune systems of helpless rats. The immune system provides the cellular defense agains illness. It contains different kinds of cells whose job is to identify and then kill foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and tumor cells. T-cells recognize specific invaders such as measles, then greatly multiply and kill invaders. Another kind, natural killer cells (NK cells), kill anything foreign they happen across. Researchers looking at the immune systems of helpless rats found that the experience of inescapable shock weakens the immune system. T-cells from the blood of rats that become helpless no longer multiply rapidly when they come across the specific invaders they are supposed to destroy. NK cells from the spleens of helpless rats lose their ability to kill foreign invaders.

A second way in which optimism should produce good health concerns sticking to her regimens and seeking medical advice. Consider a pessimistic person who believes that sickness is permanent, pervasive, and personal. She is not likely to give up unhealthy habits nor to pursue a healthy lifestyle.

A third way in which optimism should matter for health concerns the sheer number of bad life events encountered. It has been shown statistically that the more bad events a person encounters in any given time period, the more illness she will have. People who in the same six months move, get fired, and divorced are at a greater risk for infectious illness—and even for heart attacks and cancer—than are people who lead uneventful lives. Pessimists encounter more bad events and are less likely to take steps to avoid bad events and less likely to do anything to stop them once they start. So putting two and two together, if pessimists have more bad events and if more bad events lead to more illness, pessimists should have more illness.

The fourth reason that optimists should have better health concerns social support. The capacity to sustain deep friendships and love seems to be important for physical health. Middle-aged people who have at least one person whom they can call in the middle of the night to tell their troubles to, go on to have better physical health than friendless people. Unmarried people are at a higher risk for depression than couples. Even ordinary social contact is a buffer against illness. People who isolate themselves when they are sick tend to get sicker. Pessimists become passive more easily when trouble stikes, and they take fewer steps to get and sustain social support. This connection between lack of social support and illness provides the fourth reason to believe that an optimistic explanatory style is likely to produce good health.

The brain and the immune system are connected not through nerves but through hormones, the chemical messengers that flow through the blood can transmit emotional states from one part of the body to another. It is well documented that when a person is depressed the brain changes. Neurotransmitters, hormones that relay messages from one nerve to another, can become depleted. One set of transmitters called, catecholamines, become depleted during depression. If your level of pessimism can deplete your immune system, it seems likely that pessimism can impair your physical health over your whole life span.

Content Analysis for Verbal Explanations (CAVE)

November 20, 2019

This is the sixth post based on a book by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., titled Learned Optimism The subtitle is How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. The problem was how to characterize individual players in sports and their teams with respect to the optimism dimension. To do so they developed the CAVE technique. CAVE is an acronym for content analysis of verbatim explanations. This can be done by reading the sports pages. Causal statements made by a player can be evaluated on a 1 to 7 scale with respect to its permanent, pervasive, and personal qualities. This enables getting a player’s explanatory style without using a questionnaire. They found that such a profile roughly matches what would have happened if the questionnaire had been taken by the player. By doing this they created a technique that is a virtual time machine.

This virtual time machine provided an extremely powerful tool. This enabled the study of optimism of people who either could not (e.g., deceased individuals) or would not take the ASQ as long as there were verbatim quotes from these individuals. They could “CAVE” an enormous range of material for explanatory style: press conferences, diaries, therapy transcripts, letters from home, and so forth.

The CAVE method provided evidence that we learn our explanatory style from our mothers. In 1970 grandmothers were interviewed. Their children, now mothers themselves were also interviewed. They CAVEd these interviews and found that there was a marked resemblance between the level of pessimism of the mothers and their daughters. This is one of the ways we learn optimism, by listening to our mothers explain the everyday events that happen to them.

This time machine provided the first evidence that the reality of the crises we go through as children shapes our optimism: Girls who went through economic crises that were resolved came to look at bad events as temporary and changeable. But children who experienced the privations of the Great Depression and remained poor afterward came to look at bad events as fixed and immutable. Seligman writes, “So our major childhood crises may give us a pattern, like a cookie cutter, with which, for the rest of or lives, we produce explanations of new crises.

British professor George Brown spent ten years walking around the most poverty-stricken areas of South London, interviewing housewives at great length. He interviewed more than four hundred, looking for the key to the prevention of depression. Over 20% of the housewives were depressed, half of them psychotically. He was determined to find out what separated those women who got severely depressed in that trying environment from those who were apparently invulnerable.

He isolated three protective factors. If any one of them were present, depression would not occur, even in the face of severe loss and privation. The first protective factor was an intimate relationship with a spouse or lover. Such women could fight depression off well. The second was a job outside the home. The third was not having three or more children under the age of fourteen at home to take care of.
In addition to invulnerability factors, Brown isolated two major risk factors for depression: recent loss (husband dying, or emigrating) and, more important, death of their own mothers before the women had reached their teens.

Seligman concludes with three kinds of influences on a child’s explanatory style. “First, the form of the everyday causal analyses he hears from you—especially if you are his mother: If your are optimistic, he will be too. Second, the form of criticism 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.”

The CAVE methodology has proved informative for a wide range of research issues. There is a chapter titled “Politics, Religion, and Culture: A New Psychohistory.” The interested reader is encouraged to read Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Brain and Your Life.” These blog posts just capture a few major ideas from this book. In the book you can find questionnaires for assessing the optimism of you and your children.

Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ)

November 19, 2019

This is the fifth post based on a book by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. titled Learned Optimism. The subtitle is How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. The ASQ was developed to have a survey instrument for assessing attributional style. The ASQ is open-ended and consists of twelve little scenarios. Half are about bad events (e.g.,”You go out on a date and it goes badly….”, and half are about good events (e.g., “You suddenly become rich….”). You are asked to imagine the event happening to you and to fill in the most likely cause. So, to explain the first scenario you might say, “I have bad breath,” and for the second, “I’m a brilliant investor.”

Then, you are asked to rate the cause you suppled, on a one-to-seven scale, for personalization. (“Is this cause something about other people or circumstances [external], or is it something about you [internal]?). Then you are asked to rate it for permanence. (“Will this cause never again be present when looking for a job [temporary] or always be present [permanent]?”). Finally, you rate it for pervasiveness (“Does this cause affect only looking for a job [specific] or all other areas of your life [pervasive]?”)

For the first try to validate the questionnaire it was given to two hundred experienced sales agents, half of whom were eagles (very productive) and half turkeys (unproductive). The eagles scored much more optimistically on the questionnaire than the turkeys did. When these test scores were matched to actual sales records the agents who scored in the most optimistic half of the ASQ had sold 37% more insurance on average in their first two years of work than agents who scored in the pessimistic half. Agents who scored in the top 10% sold 88 % more than the most pessimistic tenth.

Seligman writes that the ASQ is a theory-based test, but it is based on a theory very different from the traditional wisdom about success. Traditional wisdom holds that there are two ingredients of success, and you need both to succeed. The first is ability or aptitude and IQ tests and the SAT are supposed to measure it. The second is desire or motivation. Traditional wisdom says that if you lack desire you will fail. Enough desire can make up for meager talent.

Seligman believes that the traditional wisdom is incomplete. He writes, “A composer can have all the talent of a Mozart and passionate desire to succeed, but if he believes he cannot compose music, he will come to nothing. He will not try hard enough. He will give up too soon when the elusive right melody takes too long to materialize. Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure.” He believes that the optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence.
The explanatory-style theory of success says that in order to choose people for success in a challenging job, you need to select for three characteristics:
1. aptitude
2. motivation
3. optimism
All three determine success.

Work with the Met Life sales force found that the ASQ greatly increased productivity. They also found that optimists kept improving over pessimists over time. The theory had been that optimism matters because it produces persistence. At first it was expected that talent and motivation for selling should be at least as important as persistence. As research continued it was found that persistence became decisive.

How You Think, How You Feel

November 18, 2019

This title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., titled Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. This is the fourth post on this book. By the late 1960s Joseph Wolpe and Tim Beck had drawn the same conclusion about depression. The conclusion was that 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 unconscious anger. 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. HM would like to note that biological causes of depression should not be ruled out, but most psychological processes, with the exception of thinking, should be ruled out.

Rumination is having the same depressing thoughts over and over. It is called rumination because people are chewing over and over the same thoughts. Seligman writes that rumination combined with a pessimistic explanatory style is the recipe for severe depression. Seligman continues, “The difference between people whose learned helplessness disappears swiftly and people who suffer their symptoms for two weeks or more is usually simple: Members of the latter group have a pessimistic explanatory style, and a pessimistic explanatory style changes learned helplessness from brief and local to long-lasting and general. Learned helplessness becomes full-blown depression when the person who fails is a pessimist. In optimists, failure produces only brief demoralization.”

Seligman continues, “The key to this process is hope over hopelessness. Pessimistic explanatory style consists of certain kinds of explanations for bad events: personal (“It’s my fault”), permanent (It’s always going to be like this”), and pervasive (It’s going to undermine every aspect of my life.)

Seligman’s theory follows: “there is one particularly self-defeating way to think: making personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations for bad events.” People who have this most pessimistic of all styes are likely, once they fail, to have he symptoms of learned helplessness for a long time and across many endeavors, and to lose self-esteem. Such protracted learned helplessness amounts to depression. People who have a pessimistic explanatory style and suffer bad events will probably become depressed, whereas people who have an optimistic explanatory style and suffer bad events tend to resist depression.” Consequently, pessimism is a risk factor for depression in the same sense as smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer or being a hostile, hard-driving man is a risk factor for a heart attack.

Cognitive Therapy is an effective therapy for depression for the following reasons:

First, you learn to recognize the automatic thoughts flitting through your consciousness at the time you feel worst.

Second, you learn to dispute the automatic thoughts by marshaling contrary evidence.

Third, you learn to make different explanations, called reattributions, and use them to dispute your automatic thoughts.

Fourth, you learn how to distract yourself from depressing thoughts.

Fifth, you learn to recognize and question the depression-sowing assumptions governing so much of what you do.

The concluding section to this chapter is titled “Why Does Cognitive Therapy work? This section is presented in its entirety.

“There are two kinds of answers to this question. 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. You can use these skills to stop depression from taking hold when failure strikes.

At a philosophical level, cognitive therapy works because it takes advantage of newly epitomized powers of the self. In an era when we believe the self can change itself, we will 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.

Ultimate Pessimism

November 17, 2019

This title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., titled Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. This is the third post on this book. Ultimate pessimism is depression, which comes in three kinds. The first is called normal depression. It is the type each of us knows well. Seligman writes, “It springs from the pained losses that are inevitable parts of being members of a sapient species, creatures who think about the future. We don’t get the jobs we want, we get rejected by people we love, or our loved ones die. It is predictable when such things happen that we feel sad and helpless. We become passive and lethargic. We can believe that our prospects are bleak and that we lack the talent to make them brighter. We don’t do our work well, and might avoid work. Zest goes out of activities we used to enjoy, and we lose our interest in food, company, and sex. We can’t sleep.

But most of the time, by one of nature’s benevolent mysteries, we start to get better. Normal depression is the common cold of mental illness. Seligman writes that he has repeatedly found that at any given moment approximately 23% of us are going through an episode of normal depression, at least in mild form.

The two other kinds of depression are called depressive disorders: unipolar and bipolar depression. What determines the difference between unipolar and bipolar depression is whether or not mania is involved. Mania is a psychological conjoint with a set of symptoms that look like the opposite of depression: unwarranted euphoria, grandiosity, frenetic talk and action, and inflated self-esteem.

Bipolar depression always includes manic episodes, and is also called manic-depression (with mania at one pole and depression at the other). Unipolar depressives never have manic episodes. Another difference between the two is that bipolar depression is much more heritable. If one of two identical twins has bipolar depression, there is a 72% chance the other also has it. This is only 14% true of fraternal twins who are no more closely related than any other full siblings. Bipolar depression is treated with a “wonder drug, “lithium carbonate.” Seligman writes that in more than 80% of cases of bipolar depression, lithium will relieve the mania to a marked degree and, to a lesser extent, the depression. Unlike normal and unipolar depression, manic-depression is an illness, appropriately viewed as a disorder of the body and treated medically.

Seligman’s view differs radically from the prevailing medical opinion, which holds that unipolar depression is an illness and normal depression is just a passing demoralization of no clinical interest. He writes, “This view is the dominant one in spite of a complete absence of evidence that unipolar depression is anything more than just severe normal depression. No one has established the kind of distinction between them that has been established between dwarfs, for instance, and short normal people—a qualitative distinction.” Both normal and unipolar depression involve the same four types of negative change: in thought, mood, behavior, and physical responses.

The way you think when you are depressed differs from the way you think when you are not depressed. When you are depressed you have a dour picture of yourself, the world, and the future. When you’re depressed, small obstacles seem like insurmountable barriers. You believe everything you touch turns to ashes. You have an endless supply of reasons why each of your successes is really a failure.

The second way both unipolar and normal depression is recognized is a negative change in mood. When you’re depressed, you feel awful: sad, discouraged, sunk in a pit of despair. Jokes are no longer funny, but unbearably ironic.

The third symptom of depression concerns behavior. There are three behavioral symptoms: passivity, indecisiveness, and suicidal action.

Many depressed people think about and attempt suicide. They generally have one or both of two motives. The first is surcease: The prospect of going on as they are is intolerable, and they want to end it all. The other is manipulation: They want to get love back, or get revenge, or have the last word in an argument.

The final symptom of depression concerns the physical self. Depression is frequently accompanied by undesirable physical symptoms; the more severe the depression, the more symptoms. The appetites diminish. You can’t eat. You can’t make love. Sleeping becomes difficult.

Unfortunately, depression is increasing. Research has shown that there has been greater than a tenfold increase in depression over the course of the century.

Seligman concludes this chapter as follows: “When we now look at the upsurge of depression, we could view it as an epidemic of learned helplessness. We know the cause of learned helplessness, and now we can see it as the cause of depression: the belief that your actions will be futile. This belief was engineered by defeat and failure as well as uncontrollable situations. Depression could be caused by defeat, failure, and loss of the consequent belief that any actions taken will be futile.

I think this belief is at the heart of our national epidemic of depression. The modern self must be more susceptible to learned helplessness, to an ever-growing conviction that nothing one does matters. I think I know why, and I’ll discuss it in the final chapter.

This all sounds pretty bleak. Yet there is also a hopeful side, and this is where explanatory style becomes important.”

Three Types of Explanatory Style

November 16, 2019

This is the second post in a series of posts on Dr. Martin Seligman’s important book “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.” The preceding post stated that it is the explanation that individuals have for their failure to achieve a particular goal. This post explains the dimensions of explanatory style.

One dimension of explanatory style is permanence. People who give up easily believe the causes of bad events that happen to them are permanent: Bad events will happen, and will always be there to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary.

Here are some comparisons of pessimistic and optimistic explanations:

People who give up easily believe the causes of bad events that happen to them are permanent.

PERMANENT (Pessimistic): TEMPORARY (Optimistic)

“I’m all washed up” “I’m exhausted.”
“Diets never work.” “Diets don’t work when you eat out.”
“You always nag.” “You nag when I don’t clean up my room.”
“The boss is a bastard.” “The boss is in a bad mood.”
“You never talk to me.” “You haven’t talked to me lately.”

The optimistic style of explaining good events is just the opposite of the optimistic style of explaining bad events. People who believe good events have permanents causes are more optimistic than people who believe they have temporary causes.

TEMPORARY (Pessmistic) PERMANENT (Optimistic)
“It’s my lucky day.” I’m always lucky
“I try hard.” I’m talented
“My rival got tired.” My rival is no good.

This permanence dimension determines how long a person gives up for. Permanent explanations for bad events produce long-lasting helplessness and temporary explanations produce resilience.

Permanence is about time. Pervasiveness is about space. People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when a failure strikes in one area. People who make specific explanations may become helpless in that one part of their lives yet march bravely on in the others.

UNIVERSAL (Pessimistic) SPECIFIC (Optimistic)
“All teachers are unfair.” “Professor Seligman is unfair.”
“I’m repulsive.” “I’m repulsive to him.”
“Books are useless.” “This book is useless.”

The optimistic explanatory style for good events is opposite that for bad events. The optimist believes that bad events have specific causes, while good events will enhance everything he does; the pessimist believes the bad events have universal causes and that good events are cause by specific factors.

SPECIFIC (Pessimistic) UNIVERSAL (Optimistic)
“I’m smart at math.” “I’m smart.”
“My broker knows oil stocks” “My broker knows Wall Street.”
“ I was charming to her.” “I was charming.”

Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our explanatory style: pervasiveness and permanence. Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope: Temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation. On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all our endeavors. Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair.

HOPELESS HOPEFUL
“I’m stupid.” “I’m hung over.”
“Men are tyrants.” “My husband was in a bad mood.”
“It’s five in ten this lump is cancer.” “It’s five in ten this lump is nothing.”

According to Seligman, the final aspect of explanatory style is personalization. When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves (internalize) or we can blame other people or circumstances (externalize). People who blame themselves when they fail have low self-esteem as a consequence. They think they are worthless, talentless, and unlovable. People who blame external events do not lose self-esteem when bad events strike. Not surprisingly, they like themselves better than people who blame themselves do.

Low self-esteem usually comes from an internal style for bad events.

INTERNAL (Low self-esteem) EXTERNAL (High self-esteem)

“I’m stupid.” “You’re stupid.”
“I have no talent at poker.” “I have no luck at poker.”
“I’m insecure.’ “I grew up in poverty.”

The optimistic style for explaining good events is the opposite of that used for bad events: It’s internal rather than external. Seligman writes that people who believe they cause good things tend to like themselves better than people who believe good things come from other people or circumstances.

EXTERNAL (Pessimistic) INTERNAL (Optimistic)

“A stroke of luck…” “I can take advantage of luck.”
“My teammates’ skill… “My skill…”

Seligman notes that although there are clear benefits to learning optimism—there are also dangers. “Temporary? Local? That’s fine. I want my depressions to be short and limited. I want to bounce back quickly. But external? Is it right that I should blame others for my failures.?”