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Key insights from

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

By Martin Seligman

What you’ll learn

We live in what some have called the Age of Melancholia. There is a mushrooming depression epidemic that must be dealt with—but how? Psychologist Martin Seligman, famous for his research on learned helplessness, argues that a person’s explanation for moments of failure and misfortune has the power to either encourage pessimism and depression or preempt the downward spiral. Learned Optimism holds out hope that pessimism and depression are not personal traits that people are stuck with. A new set of cognitive skills can help people bounce back from misfortune and failure instead of habitually falling to pieces.

Read on for key insights from Learned Optimism.

1. The biomedical and Freudian approaches to treating depression have been largely unsuccessful.

In the past, scientists tended to view depression in biomedical or psychoanalytic terms. Freud’s take was the latter: that depression is anger turned inward. The depressed individual has hated himself since infancy. These unresolved conflicts from childhood are deeply ingrained, buried beneath years of highly adapted defenses. Thus, it takes numerous sessions of plodding through the murky landscape of memory to be free of it.

The Freudian approach to dealing with depression dominates the American imagination, but it’s absurd and unnecessarily arduous. Depression is not a constant state of being, but rather episodic, usually lasting several months at a time in the vast majority of cases. Another problem is that it blames the victim, attributing his depression to a deep-seated impulse to punish—and maybe destroy—himself. After thousands of sessions and patients, psychoanalytic therapy has very little to show for itself when it comes to depression.

The biomedical approach sees depression as genetic-based disease that creates chemical and hormonal imbalances. There are cases of inherited depression, but these are more the exception than the rule, and their manifestations are particularly severe. Some medications and shock treatment have been moderately successful in treating such cases, but there is no evidence that drugs ameliorate depression’s milder forms. A major downside of the biomedical view is that it makes patients dependent on forces and substances outside themselves for wellbeing.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to conquer depression without long hours of sifting through painful memories or dependency on drugs and jolts of electricity? The good news is that there is!

2. At the heart of depression is helplessness.

So the biomedical and psychoanalytic methods fail to adequately mollify depression. But what would be the alternative?

The best solution will spring from the most accurate diagnosis. The problem is less biological or Oedipal in nature. At the center of depression are feelings of helplessness. The depressive thinks, “Nothing I choose to do or say will ever impact my life’s course.”

So depression begins with the belief that things are out of one’s control. Certainly, there are things that are beyond our control. We can’t stop a flash flood, choose our height, or determine where we will be born. But there is a vast unchartered territory that is within our control, and helplessness and pessimism keep us from exploring it. Our lives will dramatically expand or contract based on our beliefs about what we can control. The parent who believes that her instruction will not impact how her children turn out will likely experience paralysis and withdraw rather than correct her kids. She’s relinquished her control and ability to guide, and, in doing so, has allowed her input to be supplanted by peers and teachers. The prophecy becomes self-fulfilling.

Everyone has pessimistic thoughts from time to time, and sometimes those thoughts are even warranted, saving us from naiveté. When we talk about a helplessness fueled by pessimism, we are not talking about isolated incidents, but pronounced habits of thought, the reflexive responses to difficulty and failure. These pessimistic habits of thought can be called learned helplessness. After twenty-five years of research, running experiments with dogs, rats, and humans, it is clear that learned helplessness better explains depression than biochemistry and suppressed internal conflicts from childhood.

3. Your default explanatory style has an enormous impact on your ability to overcome failure.

Two people could be confronted with the same calamity. For one person, it is an insurmountable disaster, and for the other, it is a minor setback that can be readily overcome. For the former, the misfortune is his undoing. The latter, far from being stymied, moves forward and is perhaps even invigorated by the challenge.

How a person reflexively thinks about failure is called an explanatory style. Some people have pessimistic explanatory styles, others, optimistic.

Those with pessimistic explanations believe setbacks are personal, permanent, and pervasive. They habitually tell themselves “it’s my fault, it’s always going to be like this, and it’s going to undermine every area of life.” These people tend to give up quickly or feel helpless. This learned helplessness leads people into the downward spiral of depression.

Those with an optimistic explanatory style, by contrast, tend to attribute failures to outside forces rather than blaming themselves. They confine failure to one facet of life rather than let it bleed into every other part of life, and they view failure as a temporary bump in the road, rather than a permanent state of affairs.

What is the word at the center of your heart? Is it a “yes” or a “no”? If you tune in to the inner dialogue, which, for most people, is usually staticky, you will begin to get a sense of which word is yours. If your word is “no,” and your explanatory style is pessimistic, there is hope.

4. Finding connections between adversity, resultant beliefs, and consequences of those beliefs is the first step toward change.

Life is full of misfortune, failure, and rejection. It comes to the pessimist and the optimist. The difference is that the optimist tends to bounce back while the pessimist gets mired. Even moments of celebration can be drained of joy for the pessimist, who can’t help but see disaster lurking behind every triumph. The good news is that the pessimist is not doomed to subsist in this state, but can rewrite the internal scripts.

But what does that look like exactly? There are proven strategies that have helped thousands become free of depression. These are a few principles to help you flip the pessimistic scripts.

Here are the ABCs of curing depression:

The use of the word “cure” is intentional: Thousands of people have been permanently cured from depression. Unlike the biomedical and Freudian approach, which make you dependent on experts, all you need is pen and paper and a willingness to pay attention to your thoughts.

When confronted with Adversity, we immediately have thoughts about it. These thoughts coalesce into Beliefs. These become so ingrained that we usually fail to notice their presence unless we consciously focus our attention on them. And these beliefs are not without Consequences—our emotions and actions will follow from those beliefs.

Change begins when you start to track the connections between A, B, and C: adversity, beliefs, and consequences. Say you and your partner have an argument (adversity). What beliefs would surface in the aftermath? Do you tend think “I never have the right things to say,” or, “He is in a horrible mood,” or,  “I can patch up any misunderstanding”?

In the case of the first belief (“I never have the right things to say”), you have made a problem personal, permanent, and pervasive. The second belief (“He is in a horrible mood”) is an improvement because the adversity is framed as temporary and external. The third belief (“I can patch up any misunderstanding”) is another excellent response. After the initial moment of anger and immobilization passes, you’ll be able to work through the issue and feel better before long.

In moments of adversity—this could be anything from a crying baby to a clogged sink to a threat of job loss—we inevitably create beliefs to make sense of them. Pay attention to the beliefs that come to mind, and what the consequences of those beliefs are, both feelings and actions. Do you withdraw? Reach for the bottle? Take a nap? Do you experience sadness? Anger? Resignation? Begin to write as many of these down as you can as as soon as you experience them, connecting the dots between As, Bs, and Cs. Within a few days, you should have a handful of beliefs that emerge regularly. You really don’t need more than five.

Once you have five, examine the connections and evaluate whether the beliefs are pessimistic or optimistic. Did you view the adversities as your fault or due to other factors? Did you believe that they were specific, isolated incidents or that everything was going to hell in that moment? Did you believe it was temporary or that it would last a long time? Pessimistic explanations make people resigned and passive. Optimistic explanations invigorate.

5. Disputing harmfully pessimistic beliefs has been proven to have an energizing effect.

Once you’ve established some ABCs, you can move on to D. Look for those patterns in your daily life and get better at identifying them as they arise. When you spot them, you can counter with Distraction, Disputation, and Distancing.  Distraction can be a good option, especially in moments when you can’t devote proper attention to the ABC patterns, like at a party or work. It is not avoiding, but postponing, choosing to set them aside and deal with them later.

Disputation is the most effective, long-term strategy. When pessimistic beliefs arise from moments of misfortune, dispute them. They’ve run the show for too long. Confront them, and bring their absurdity to light. Sometimes they should be heeded, but for the most part, the accusatory voices in your head are harmful distortions rather than helpful input. The more you challenge these beliefs, the less power they will hold over you.

When a stranger or acquaintance attempts character assassination, it is easy to distance yourself from criticisms. You can confidently say, “he doesn’t know me,” or “if he knew the context of my remarks, he wouldn’t have jumped down my throat” or “he’s self-righteous and needed a reason to feel better about himself.” It is far easier to distance yourself from the beliefs of a stranger than from your own, but it is a vital skill. The accusations often fly thick and fast on daily basis. It is also important to remember that beliefs are just beliefs. They are not necessarily facts. Just because you believe something about yourself doesn’t make it true. Hold your beliefs about yourself loosely.

Observing the resultant “Energization” is the E in the ABCDE script-flipping process. In the next five moments of adversity that you encounter, watch your beliefs and their consequences, dispute those beliefs, and then observe the energy that you experience from dealing with harmful beliefs well.

6. Depression rates are ten times higher among today’s youth than their grandparents’ generation.

At the level of the individual, the problem is a harmful explanatory style. At a societal level, the problem is twofold: the ascendency of the self, and the decline of the commons.

Rampant individualization without substantive belief in anything higher than self has left us naked and scared. The endless variety in consumer goods caters to individual preferences to an unprecedented degree. Not only does it make decision-making a paralyzing process, but it sets up high expectations for what constitutes the good life. The options lead to an abiding desire to realize the “maximal self” by gratifying its numerous particular hungers. With this unbridled freedom comes the downside of depression.

This phenomenon alone encourages pessimism and depression. But on top of this is the dissipation of the commons, which provided a source of community and sense of purpose. Beliefs in God, country, and family have faded tremendously over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. As a result, there is no narrative beyond the individual that can undergird her in moments of failure. Thus, a loss is an eternal loss because there’s no larger narrative that one can hope for and fight for other than the self that is alone and fighting an uphill battle against a cruel world.

Together, the loss of the commons and elevation of self have created a perfect storm for a depression epidemic. It is worth noting that depression affects women twice as frequently as men. There are different explanations as to why this might be, but the most convincing is that men are more active and less likely to ruminate in response to feeling depressed. Ruminant animals (like sheep and cows) chew cud, turning an amalgamation of undigested vomit over and over in their mouths. When people ruminate, they are chewing the emotional cud. Nothing helpful comes from it.

Not only are women far more likely than men to get depressed, but women today are far more prone to severe depression than their grandmothers. Only 3 percent of women from the WWI generation had depression; whereas 60 percent of women from the Korean War generation (mid-twentieth century) reported being depressed—that’s a 20-fold increase!

For both men and women, depression is soaring and must be addressed. The solution is at least twofold. One would be affirming and encouraging people to build community ties and remind them of the connection between commitment to a higher good and well being. The second has been the subject of this book—leverage the individual’s growing desire for personal control by teaching learned optimism. It empowers the self to take charge of explanatory style and to see things in proper perspective—without the endless flow of consultations and pharmaceuticals. Learned optimism has already had a demonstrable impact on depression, achievement, and physical health. Let’s hope the word continues to get around.

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