Home Bookend - Where reading meets review Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Life and Mind – Martin Seligman

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Life and Mind – Martin Seligman

by Venky

(Image Credit: Booktree.ng)

Is pessimism a prelude to depression? Or is depression a trigger of pessimism? Dr. Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology and the former President of the American Psychological Association, in a riveting book, “Learned Optimism”, posits that a positive perspective can be ‘cultivated’.

Introducing a concept which he terms “learned helplessness”, Seligman articulates that individuals are yoked to a belief that they are incapable of altering their circumstances after repeatedly experiencing a stressful event.

Learned helplessness can be fruitfully countered by learned optimism. But can this phenomenon be taught? Seligman says yes in a resounding manner! Recommending a technique called “ABC” pioneered by Dr. Albert Ellis, Seligman also informs us that three cognitive distortions tend to underpin the way we understand our experiences: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. By tackling these distortions, we can learn to be more optimistic.

The acronym ABC represents:

  • Antecedents/Adversity
  • Beliefs/Behavior
  • Consequences

Relearning one’s individualised ABC process instills an awareness of these cognitive distortions or pessimistic explanatory styles, tackles them head on, and replaces them with more optimistic and adaptive thoughts.

Can optimism be improved or is a pessimistic individual destined to forever remain yoked to the tether of pessimism? Seligman banks on the ABC technique as alluded to above and urges his readers to steer clear of three primary and influential cognitive disorders, personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.

The cognitive disorder of Personalization leads to a pessimist attributing negative events to internal factors as against external contingencies. There is an innate tendency to view failures as natural outcomes of the fault of the person experiencing such a setback. Thus, there is an unfortunate and unwarranted ‘personalisation’ of a negative or adverse event. In stark contrast, cheery optimists place the blame for the event on external factors and strive to perform better.

Pervasiveness as a cognitive disorder has its nub in the element of catastrophe or calamity. “I would never be able to win a client”; “I will never ever fall in love” etc are constant and perpetual bemoaning and lamentations of a pessimist par excellence. A pervasive pessimist again, in sharp contrast to an optimist would also have the propensity to link prospects or rather disasters with the same chain of past failures.

Permanence is an undying belief about an adverse situation/event being unchangeable and eternal. A pessimist never sees a turn for the good and nurses an antipathy towards any light that may be waiting at the end of the tunnel. An optimist on the other hand views a setback as a fleeting lapse and a battle lost in order to win a larger war.

The ABC technique enables not just a change of mindset but also a behavioural shift. This tilt that leans towards optimism, when practiced piously and rigorously would bring about refreshing changes in the attitudes of a pessimist. The book offers a whole horde of ‘learned optimism’ exercises that have the ABC technique as their pivot. Engaging in such exercises brings in a reflective and introspective bent to the practioner.

All the exercises have three columns for Antecedents, Behavior, and Consequences on this sheet, and the reader can use it to explore their own explanatory style in both positive and negative situations. Through a series of 12 such tests and exercises, (including some reserved for children), Seligman, through his book seeks to help his readers overcome the malaise of pessimism.

In Seligman’s own words, ‘once you get into the habit of disputing negative beliefs, your daily life will run much better, and your will feel much happier… the benefits are without limit’.

“Learned Optimism” – a pathway to eliminate fatalistic pessimism.

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