Learned Optimism by Martin E.P. Seligman

Summarized by Trevor McKendrick
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The Book in Two Sentences

This book changed how I see so-called "positive thinking" and personal story telling. It showed me that you can change your behavior and your output by changing the stories you tell yourself about why things happen the way they do.

Book Notes

The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

HOW DO you think about the causes of the misfortunes, small and large, that befall you? Some people, the ones who give up easily, habitually say of their misfortunes: “It’s me, it’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything I do.” Others, those who resist giving in to misfortune, say: “It was just circumstances, it’s going away quickly anyway, and, besides, there’s much more in life.”

Your habitual way of explaining bad events, your explanatory style, is more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought, learned in childhood and adolescence. Your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world—whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. It is the hallmark of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist

If you think about bad things in always’s and never’s and abiding traits, you have a permanent, pessimistic style. If you think in sometimes’s and lately’s, if you use qualifiers and blame bad events on transient conditions, you have an optimistic style.

People who believe good events have permanent causes try even harder after they succeed. People who see temporary reasons for good events may give up even when they succeed, believing success was a fluke.

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 stalwartly on in the others.

A pessimistic explanatory style is at the core of depressed thinking. A negative concept of the future, the self, and the world stems from seeing the causes of bad events as permanent, pervasive, and personal, and seeing the causes of good events in the opposite way.

Depressed people often cannot get started on any but the most routine tasks, and they give up easily when impeded. A novelist can’t get the first word written. When he finally does manage to get going, he quits writing when the screen on his word processor flickers, and he doesn’t go back for a month.

Learned helplessness could be cured by showing the subject his own actions would now work. It could also be cured by teaching the subject to think differently about what caused him to fail. It could be prevented if, before the experience with helplessness occurred, the subject learned that his actions made a difference. The earlier in life such mastery was learned, the more effective the immunization against helplessness.

When we now looked at the upsurge of depression, we could view it as an epidemic of learned helplessness. We knew the cause of learned helplessness, and now we could see it as the cause of depression: the belief that your actions will be futile. This belief was engendered by defeat and failure as well as by uncontrollable situations. Depression could be caused by defeat, failure, and loss and the consequent belief that any actions taken will be futile.

You are living under a tyranny of should’s. Stop ‘should-ing’ on yourself!”

“The troubled person,” he wrote, “is led to believe that he can’t help himself and must seek out a professional healer when confronted with distress related to everyday problems of living. His confidence in using the ‘obvious’ techniques he has customarily used in solving his problems is eroded because he accepts the view that emotional disturbances arise from forces beyond his grasp. He can’t hope to understand himself through his own efforts, because his own notions are dismissed as shallow and insubstantial. By debasing the value of common sense, this subtle indoctrination inhibits him from using his own judgment in analyzing and solving his problems.”

Here’s how the pessimism-rumination chain leads to depression: First, there is some threat against which you believe you are helpless. Second, you look for the threat’s cause, and, if you are a pessimist, the cause you arrive at is permanent, pervasive, and personal. Consequently, you expect to be helpless in the future and in many situations, a conscious expectation that is the last link in the chain, the one triggering depression.

Changing either rumination or pessimism helps relieve depression. Changing both helps the most.

A culture believing in self-improvement will support health clubs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and psychotherapy. A culture believing that bad action stems from bad character and is permanent won’t even try.

When you say equally groundless things to yourself, you believe them. This is because you think the source, yourself, is more credible. It isn’t. Often we distort reality more than drunks do.”

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

A composer can have all the talent of a Mozart and a 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.

There is one other reason why learning the skills of optimism may seem undesirable to you. In chapter six we looked at a balance sheet that weighed optimism against pessimism. While optimism had the virtues recapped in the opening of this chapter, pessimism had one virtue: supporting a keener sense of reality.** Does learning the skills of optimism mean sacrificing realism?** This is a deep question which puts the goal of these “changing” chapters into sharper focus. They don’t purvey an absolute, unconditional optimism for you to apply blindly in all situations; they offer a flexible optimism. They aim to increase your control over the way you think about adversity. If you have a negative explanatory style, you no longer need to live under the tyranny of pessimism. When bad events strike, you don’t have to look at them in their most permanent, pervasive, and personal light, with the crippling results that pessimistic explanatory style entails. These chapters will give you a choice about how to look at your misfortunes—and an alternative that doesn’t require you to become a slave to blind optimism.

The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy.

if the cost of failure is low, use optimism. The sales agent deciding whether to make one more call loses only his time if he fails. The shy person deciding whether to attempt to open a conversation risks only rejection. The teenager contemplating learning a new sport risks only frustration. The disgruntled executive, passed over for promotion, risks only some refusals if he quietly puts out feelers for a new position. All should use optimism.

What we say to ourselves when we face a setback can be just as baseless as the ravings of a jealous rival. Our reflexive explanations are usually distortions. They are mere bad habits of thought produced by unpleasant experiences in the past—by childhood conflicts, by strict parents, by an overly critical Little League coach, by a big sister’s jealousy. But because they seem to issue from ourselves, we treat them as gospel. They are merely beliefs, however. And just believing something doesn’t make it so. Just because a person fears that he is unemployable, unlovable, or inadequate doesn’t mean it’s true. It is essential to stand back and suspend belief for a moment, to distance yourself from our pessimistic explanations at least long enough to verify their accuracy. Checking out the accuracy of our reflexive beliefs is what disputation is all about.

Learned optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world but through the power of “non-negative” thinking.

To dispute your own beliefs, scan for all possible contributing causes. Focus on the changeable (not enough time spent studying), the specific (this particular exam was uncharacteristically hard) and the nonpersonal (the professor graded unfairly) causes. Optimism Life Strategies Mental Exercises

The main tool for changing your interpretations of adversity is disputation. Practice disputing your automatic interpretations all the time from now on. Anytime you find yourself down or anxious or angry, ask what you are saying to yourself. Sometimes the beliefs will turn out to be accurate; when this is so, concentrate on the ways you can alter the situation and prevent adversity from becoming disaster. But usually your negative beliefs are distortions. Challenge them. Don’t let them run your emotional life.

Everyone has his own point of discouragement, his own wall. What you do when you hit this wall can spell the difference between helplessness and mastery, between failure and success. Failure, once the wall looms, does not stem from laziness, although not getting over the wall is commonly mistaken for laziness. Nor is it lack of talent, or lack of imagination. It’s simply ignorance of some very important skills not taught in any school.

Every successful company, every successful life for that matter, requires both accurate appreciation of reality and the ability to dream beyond the present reality.

The Waning of the Commons – THE LIFE COMMITTED to nothing larger than itself is a meager life indeed. Human beings require a context of meaning and hope.

I call the larger setting the commons. It consists of a belief in the nation, in God, in one’s family, or in a purpose that transcends our lives.

So put together the lack of belief that your relationship to God matters, the breakdown of your belief in the benevolent power of your country, and the breakdown of the family. Where can one now turn for identity, for purpose, and for hope? When we need spiritual furniture, we look around and see that all the comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs have been removed and all that’s left to sit on is a small, frail folding chair: the self.

In many ways extreme individualism tends to maximize pessimistic explanatory style, prompting people to explain commonplace failures with permanent, pervasive, and personal causes. The growth of the individual, for example, means that failure is probably my fault—because who else is there but me? The decline of the commons means that failure is permanent and pervasive. To the extent that larger, benevolent institutions (God, nation, family) no longer matter, personal failures seem catastrophic. Because time in an individualistic society seems to end with our own death, individual failure seems permanent. There is no consolation for personal failure. It contaminates all of life. To the extent that larger institutions command belief, any personal failure seems less eternal and less pervasively undermining.

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