Learned Optimism Improves Health and Resilience



Martin E. P. Seligman has been a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania for many years and is the director of the Positive Psychology Center there. He is past president of the American Psychological Association and the author of several books. “Learned Optimism” (originally published in 1990) is in its second edition and has been a national bestseller. Its subtitle indicates its focus: “How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.” Dr. Seligman, like most clinical psychologists, occupied himself with healing or ameliorating mental illness and dysphoric states (e.g., depression, generalized anxiety, and anger) rather than the positive goals of preventing illness and increasing resilience (the ability to rebound quickly from stress and distress).

Dr. Seligman originally conducted research on learned helplessness using dogs as subjects. The dogs would be subjected to electric shocks; they had a way of escaping these shocks by going to an adjoining compartment in their cage. But then they were placed in a condition where there was no escape. No matter what they did the shocks continued. After a time they would just lie there, whimpering, suffering and making no effort to escape or do much of anything. Even when they once again were given the opportunity to escape the shocks and even when they saw other dogs escaping by going to the safe compartment, they would no longer try. They had learned helplessness.

This condition resembles depression in humans. We could call it a learned pessimism.
In the book much is made of the distinction between pessimism and optimism, and how patterns of thinking influence them. A questionnaire is given in which people are tested on their degree of pessimism; readers are encouraged to answer the questions to discover their own results. Test results reveal how pessimistic test-takers are on three dimensions: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Testing yourself engages you and helps the material come alive.

“Permanence” refers to continuation through time. People who give up easily believe the causes of bad events persist and will always affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe that causes of the bad events are temporary. An example of a permanent (pessimistic) view is “You never talk to me,” and a temporary (optimistic) view is “You haven’t talked to me lately.”

“Pervasiveness” has to do with the specific vs. the universal, or how widespread a problem is presumed to be. Say Keith has been fired. He broods about all sorts of things. It affects his mood and his family life. He cannot stand to see other people and stays away from parties. He never laughs at jokes. He catches a cold and gives up jogging. In contrast, Mary is also fired, but she continues to be invested in her children and her husband and finds satisfaction in her family life. She continues to work out and her health remains robust. She doesn’t see the firing as representing her competence in multiple domains of her life. Keith (it’s no surprise) scores more highly on pessimism than Mary.

The third and final aspect of explanatory style is “personalization”: internal vs. external. When bad things happen we can blame ourselves or other people. Low self-esteem comes from an internal style for explaining bad events: “It’s all my fault.” A more optimistic response is “Professor Peters is unfair; he didn’t give me enough credit for the good points in my essay.” It’s a matter of self-blame vs. blaming the other. Blaming the other counts as more optimistic. (Nothing is claimed here about which response is more realistic.)

I love the optimistic response of the baseball star Darryl Strawberry when he was interviewed after a game and asked why he muffed a fly ball. He replied: “There was a sudden gust of wind and it carried the ball farther than I expected; but I still got my glove on it and almost caught it.” This wasn’t a failure but an accomplishment, a sign of his own talent. What can be more temporary than a sudden gust of wind? And it certainly wasn’t his fault; it was a matter of external circumstances. Moreover, he didn’t look at this as pervasive, assuming this would be typical of his future in all areas of his life. It didn’t lead him to conclude that he was a lousy baseball player, affect his relationship with his teammates, or determine his level of happiness. How different this is from a student who misses a few questions on a test and concludes that he really blew it, that he’s a failure and will never make it as a student at the university; therefore, he will get a lousy job and his life will be ruined. Wow! It sounds like he’s already depressed.

There are strong correlations between degrees of optimism and success at work, school, and sports. And, importantly, the more optimistic a person is, the healthier she tends to be. A person’s psychology markedly influences the immune system. Depression and bereavement suppress the immune system, and the more chronic state of pessimism can have an even greater effect. Pessimistic people get depressed more easily and more often, lower immune activity and more illness. The book contains an entire chapter on general health.

In the book I found a fascinating correlation of politics with optimism, affecting success in elections. Elections are influenced by many factors, but the more optimistic candidate is elected in the vast majority of cases. Here’s an example from the presidential election of 1952. Accepting the nomination in the Democratic convention, Adlai Stevenson said:

When the tumult and the shouting die, when the bands are gone and the lights are dimmed, there is the stark reality of responsibility in an hour of history haunted with those gaunt,grim specters of strife, dissension and materialism at home, and ruthless, inscrutable and hostile power abroad.

What writing! Though this is an example of great literary prose, it’s one rumination after another. True to his reputation as an intellectual, Stevenson was analyzing bad events without proposing action to alter them. In contrast, listen to Eisenhower accepting the Republican nomination:

Today is the first day of our battle. The road that leads to November fourth is a fighting road. In that fight I will keep nothing in reserve. I have stood before on the eve of battle. Before every attack it has always been my practice to seek out our men in their camps and along the road and talk with them face to face about their concerns and discuss with them the great mission to which we are all committed.

Eisenhower’s speeches lacked the grace of Stevenson’s, but there was optimism and action. Did Eisenhower’s optimism and Stevenson’s pessimism play a causal part in the election results? We don’t know. But in case after case, Seligman shows that the more optimistic candidate wins.

There is much to recommend in the book. It’s a fascinating read. Not only is it relevant to mental health and not only does it suggest ways of improving health, resilience, and prevention, but it also draws the reader in. I heartily recommend it.

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