Learned Optimism

Learned Optimism

For years a little voice told me that I should read about Positive Psicology. I never even came across it really, but it is one of those examples of really good intuition I guess. Fast forward some years, I read the first book of the father of positive psicology Martin Seligman.

Learned Optimism had a really deep impact on me. Over the years I’ve read a lot of so-called self-help literature because frankly, it is awesome to absorb the wisdom of people’s entire lifespans. Nowadays I tend to read more biographies than other types of self-help books that deal with more specific topics, why? Because biographies tend to describe better the ups and downs, which is much more valuable than just getting some magic formula to success.

Also, there are too many authors trying to make easy money in the self-help section which results in a watered down overall quality. Biographies of successful people is an easy way to filter out good information about people who actually did it.

But Learned Helplessness is not any self-help book. This book is based on proven principles of psychology. The author takes you through the entire process of how he discovered that people can learn to be helpless, and thus can learn to stop being helpless. The first experiments were done on animals but later many have been done on people and groups of people. Here are some lessons from this book.

Self-esteem is a meter of how well you do, not an end in itself

In the 1960s the self-esteem movement started in California. The idea of California’s legislature was that self-esteem should be taught in every classroom as a “vaccine” against the social ills of the depression. This is the movement that has made competition a dirty word. But is self-esteem a worthwhile goal?

I am not against self-esteem, but I believe that self-esteem is just a meter that reads out the state of the system. It is not an end in itself. When you are doing well in school or work, when you are doing well with the people you love, when you are doing well in play, the meter will register high. When you are doing badly, it will register low.

The author explains that there is nothing in the literature that shows that self-esteem itself causes an improvement in performance. It is just a symptom or correlate of how well a person is doing. More on self-esteem here.

If boosting self-esteem is no solution for the epidemics of depression and violence among young people then what can be done? Learned Optimism to the rescue. The idea is, take people in risk of depression and teach them learned optimism, thereby preventing depressive and anxiety disorders.

The effect of Learned Optimism

The benefits of learned optimism grow over time. As an experiment in which pre-puberty children were taught the skills of learned optimism showed. Children in the control group went through puberty, got their first sexual rejections, and moved from top dog in middle school to the bottom of the heap in high school.

At twenty-four months forty-four percent of them had moderate to severe depressive symptoms, whereas only twenty-two percent of the optimism group had moderate or severe symptoms.

Hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. Experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and across basically the entire life. Read The Happiness Advantage for more on this.

Helplessness, the root cause of pessimism

Helplessness is a state in which you think that nothing you do affects what happens to you. It lies at the core of pessimism.

Our life begins in utter helplessness, we depend on others to rise up. Gradually we gain more personal control growing up. Personal control is the opposite of helplessness. Still, many things In life are outside of our control. But it is how we think about this realm of life that enhances or diminishes the control we have over it.

Thoughts are not merely reactions, they change what ensues. The very thought that nothing we do matters will prevent us from acting!

And so we cede control to our peers or circumstances. When we overestimate our helplessness other forces take control and shape our future.

Who never gives up

Some people give up easily, others don’t. People who give up easily usually think something like “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.”

Explanatory style

We don’t just feel a certain way when events occur. Those feelings are a result of our thinking, and how we explain the events of our lives to ourselves. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness. An optimistic explanatory style stops learned helplessness and a pessimistic one spreads helplessness.

How an optimistic explanatory style can change a persons outlook on life

Learned helplessness can be cured by teaching people to think differently about what caused them to fail. The subject learns that her actions do make a difference. The earlier in life such mastery is owned, the more effective the immunization against helplessness as studies showed.

Drugs relieve depression but don’t solve the underlying issue, cognitive therapy, a therapy designed to teach people how to change their thinking, unlike drugs, solve the root of the problem and thus have the potential to cure depression over the long term.

There is so much more I want to share from this book but I have to stop somewhere. In summary, this book will teach you clinically proven methods to change how you think about and consequently react to events which will dramatically improve the path your life takes over the years.

If you want a copy of the book you can get it here.

Cheers, I hope you give it a try. I benefited greatly from this book


Also published on Medium.