Tuesday, February 22, 2005

In the FoxHole, Part V:
Learned Optimism

In the FoxHole, part I - Strength before StrengthI
In the FoxHole, part II - Pain as Teacher
In the FoxHole, part III - Waiting

In the FoxHole, Part IV - Strength in Christ

a summary of Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin Seligman.

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skilfully curled)
all worlds

ee cummings
"love is a place"
No Thanks (1935)

Just a couple of nights ago I finished this book by Dr. Seligman, former President of the American Psychological Association and currently the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman begins his book with cummings wonderful poem above.

I found the book to be enormously helpful. Seligman details how optimism effects health, academic performance, sports performance, politics, relationships, etc. by referring to a variety of studies performed by himself and others. I thought it might serve some if I hit briefly some of Seligman's main points.

**Explanatory Style and Learned Helplessness**

Seligman is not merely advocating what is popularly known as Positive Thinking. He does not mean "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better" kind of thinking (p. 221). Rather, what Seligman focuses on is the way that we think about the negative events or circumstances of our lives - how we think about, and then how we respond. He writes, "Learned optimism works not through an unjustified positivity about the world but through the power of 'non-negative' thinking" (p. 221).

Seligman calls the way we talk to ourselves about negatives of our lives our explanatory style. The explanatory style of pessimists reveals learned helplessness. By the way that they think about negative events, pessimists show that they view the situation as hopeless and view themselves as being powerless to find any positive in or change the situation.

Seligman explains how the pessimist can actually change their explanatory style and therefore stop the resulting behaviors that can often lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. Recovering pessimists can do this by challenging and then changing their explanatory style.

**How Pessimists View and Create Reality**

Seligman is very specific about how they do this which I've summarized with this chart (which also includes the way that optimists and pessimists consider positive events)

Learned Optimism Chart

Optimists view negative events or circumstances in three aspects:

1 - What is the permanence of the negative event or circumstance?

When the optimist is not hired into a much-hoped-for new job after her interview, she does not then think, "I will never get a better job." She views not getting the job as a distinct event that doesn't intrinsically predict her future success. She continues seeking and taking interviews until she gets a new job.

2 - What is the pervasiveness of the negative event or circumstance?

In the above example, the optimist doesn't assume that now every interview with every company will result in her not getting a new job.

Similarly, when an optimist's son is caught using marijuana, the optimist father does not automatically assume that the son is, therefore, engaging in all kinds of self-destructive behavior. He's certainly realistic about the possibility of other negative behaviors (more on appropriate pessimism below), but he doesn't absolutize his son as a complete moral disaster.

3 - Shall the negative event or circumstance be personalized?

In the first example, the optimist doesn't say to herself, "I might as well face it; I'm simply not smart enough to move to the next level. I'm stuck in my current job and if I'm not careful I might even lose that. Why didn't I go to college instead of marrying young? I'll never amount to anything. I might as well accept that."

The optimist does not negatively self-define in an unrealistic way. She doesn't catastrophize the situation or negatively absolutize herself.

**How to Change Explanatory Style**

For the pessimist and the optimist, explanatory style creates reality in tandem with negative events and circumstances. One can analyze three steps in which this occurs.
1 - Adversity - The interviewee doesn't get the job.
2 - Belief - "I'll never be smart enough to make more money than what I'm making right now."
3 - Consequence - The potential hiree spends more time watching TV than working her personal network for job leads.
It's important to see here that not only the adversity but the belief itself informs the long-term consequence
Consequently, changing explanatory style focuses on challenging the pessimistic belief.

Seligman details how the pessimists can transform themselves into optimists. They do it by challenging their own explanatory style and thereby creating a new one. In this way, they begin to develop a new paradigm of reality.
He suggests a number of ways in which to conduct such an argument. He encourages the entrenched pessimist to consider
the evidence - What is the specific evidence that the above pessimistic belief is true? Why does it necessary follow that since you didn't get the job, you lack the necessary intelligence?
alternative explanations - Are there other reasons or causes for the negative event that may be true other than this catastrophic one? Is it possible you didn't get the job because the HR department requires the boss to interview three candidate when he's already decided he's going to hire his son-in-law irrespective of your brilliance?
the implications - Seligman writes, "But the way things go in this world, the facts won't always be on your side. The negative belief you hold about yourself may be correct. In this situation, the technique to use is de-catastophizing" (p. 222). Perhaps it is true that you are not meant to be an electrical engineer. So what? There are many kinds of intelligences; perhaps you're barking up the wrong tree for a way to move up socioeconomically.
the usefulness of your negative belief - In her wonderful book No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin reports Eleanor Roosevelt's belief about how her husband, World War II President Franklin Roosevelt, avoided negative ruminations. Before WWII's Operation Overlord, in which the Allies finally invaded Europe to defeat Hitler, Goodwin writes, "...Roosevelt remained calm.... In Eleanor's judgment, her husband was better able to meet the tension than many of the others, "because he'd learned from polio that if there was nothing you could do about a situation, then you'd better try to put it out of your mind and go on with your work at hand" (pp. 507,508, emphasis mine).
The psychologist Larry Crabb used to teach about using your emotions as a barometer. When the pessimist is upset about a negative situation or event, she should use her emotional response as an internal indicator that she needs to begin arguing with her catastrophizing beliefs. By stringing together these kinds of intentional choices event after event, situation after situation, and day by day, the pessimist will eventually morph into an optimist.
**Flexible Optimism or The Stockdale Paradox**

Seligman explores the fact that sometimes we must employ a nuanced optimism - what he calls flexible optimism. He talks about choosing not to select optimism when the situation calls for such a choice.

But I'd like to suggest that Jim Collins' concept of the Stockdale Paradox, which he details in his excellent Good to Great, might be an even more robust, nuanced and holistic approach to optimism. This concept is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the celebrated former Vietnam POW. When Collins asked Stockdale who died in POW camp, Stockdale replied (as Collins reports),

"Oh, that’s easy,'" he said. "The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say,‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (from Good to Great, pp 83ff).
Jim Collins sets forth the principle that I believe fills out a more balanced view of optimism:
Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties
AND at the same time
Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
What is variable, then, is not the optimism, but merely whether it's short-term or long-term.

**The Limits of Learned Optimism**

In addition to flexible optimism, Seligman offers another proviso to his concept of Learned Optimism:

"Optimism is no panacea."

Seligman continues:

"I do not believe learned optimism alone will stem the tide of depression on a society-wide basis. Optimism is just a useful adjunct to wisdom. By itself, it cannot provide meaning" (p. 291). Optimism must be informed by wisdom and values.

**The Waxing of the Self and the Waning of the Commons**
Seligman suggests that challenging ones own explanatory style occurs best in the dual contexts of community and relationship.
Seligman recommends one method of challenging a pessimistic explanatory style is by asking a trusted friend or family member to argue against the pessimist using the worst-case tendencies of the pessimist. In this way, the pessimist learns to argue against themselves.
But perhaps more significantly is Seligman's passage in the last chapter of the book dealing with what he calls "The Waxing of the Self and the Waning of the Commons." It alone is worth the price of the book.
In this fascinating section, Seligman opines that two of the reasons depression is 10x more common today than it was half a century ago are
- The Exaltation of the Self.
"The society we live in exalts the self. It takes the pleasures and pains, the successes and failures of the individual with unprecedented seriousness. ...The self is expanded to such a point that individual helplessness is deemed something to remedy, rather than our expected lot in life" (p, 282).
Seligman believes that the ascension of the self occurred because of several factors including:

  • expanded consumer choice through industrialization,
  • the increasing income power of the those in America.
-The Descent of the Commons

The author writes, "The life committed to nothing larger than itself is a meager life indeed. Human beings require a context of meaning and hope. We used to have ample context, and when we encountered failure, we could pause and take our rest in that setting -- our spiritual furniture - and revive our sense of who we are. 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." (p. 284).

Seligman sees several factors that have precipitated this decline:
  • The assassinations in the late 60's of Kennedy, Kennedy, King, and Malcolm X.
  • Vietnam
  • Watergate
  • The increase of divorce
  • a decline in belief in God
"So put together the lack of belief.... 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 small, frail folding chair: the self" (p. 285).

Seligman then wraps up how these two converge to precipitate a more negative explanatory style:

"...Our epidemic of depression is not merely a matter of the paltry comfort we get from society at large. 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. ... To the extent that larger institutions command belief, any personal failure seems less external and less pervasively undermining" (p. 286, emphasis mine)

He suggests two remedies:

1) moral jogging in which the volunteers in some good cause or gives money to these causes.

2) and applying the technique of learned optimism that can help the experimenter to learnthe value of subordinating one's personal to that the larger commons context

He suggests this will enhance the commons and help cure the depressed or stave it off completely!
**A Biblical Case for Learned Optimism**

Finally, I wish to simply suggest that there is some biblical basis for at least some of what Seligman proposes. I see, for example, Philippians 4:4-9 as an informing basis for Learned Optimism:

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me--practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(English Standard Version)

Paul, who wrote these profound words in his letter to the church in Philippi while in prison, encourages the reader anxious about a negative event or circumstance to bring that concern to God. He directs the reader to remember the current blessings of God (Thanksgiving) and to focus his thoughts on the what is positive in his life.
I have found these thoughts helpful as I have argued with myself that I will not always be living in a FoxHole.


JSV said...

I went to a church that would ridicule all that psychological mumbo-jumbo and state that God’s sovereignty is the core issue and walking in faith after regeneration in Christ. All events are ordained by God and therefore we are to walk in faith by responding in faith through a prayerful heart attitude.

EternaLee said...

I appreciated this article for its grounded view of reality and society and how to deal with each.

Stephen said...

thanks lee. seligman is very helpful!