Why is optimism important? “Optimists recover from their momentary helplessness immediately,” according to Seligman. “Very soon after failing, they pick themselves up, shrug, and start trying again. For them, defeat is a challenge, a mere setback on the road to inevitable victory. They see defeat as temporary and specific, not pervasive.”
“Pessimists wallow in defeat, which they see as permanent and pervasive. They become depressed and stay helpless for very long periods,” Seligman notes. “A setback is defeat. And a defeat in a battle is the loss of the war.”
So how can one unlearn helplessness? “Learned helplessness could be cured by showing the subject his own actions would now work. It could be cured by teaching the subject to think differently about what caused him to fail.” Seligman continues, “It could be prevented if, before his experience with helplessness occurred, the subject learned that his actions made a difference. The earlier in life such mastery was learned, the more effective the immunization against helplessness.”
Seligman cites three ways of explaining events: Permanence (temporary or permanent), Pervasiveness (specific versus universal), Personalization (internal versus external).
According to Seligman, “it’s a matter of ABC: when we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs.” And these beliefs have consequences.
“Pessimistic explanations (permanent, universal and internal) set off passivity and dejection, whereas optimistic explanations (temporary, specific and external) energize.”
When looking for explanatory evidence regarding an event, instead of thinking of the permanent, pervasive and personal belief, scan for the temporary (or changeable), specific (i.e., related to a specific event rather than an entire life), and the nonpersonal (i.e., the event was not due to you).
Seligman notes that there are two ways to approach pessimistic beliefs: distraction and disputation.
Distraction involves thinking about other things or resolving to think the pessimistic thought later. This provides immediate but not permanent relief.
Disputation – disputing one’s beliefs – is a more effective, long-term approach. What makes disputation work is the acceptance that beliefs are just that, beliefs – not necessarily reality. And the recognition that believing something is true does not always make it so.
The approach to disputation is: evidence, alternatives, implications and usefulness. First, the evidence-based approach: is the belief factually correct – this often allows beliefs that are extreme and catastrophic (always, never, worst, awful) to be reframed correctly.
While it is not always possible to dispute a belief, because it might be based in reality, you can decatastrophize, and realize the consequences are not as bad as you might have initially thought.
For example, dieters may eat too much at a given meal (the belief is correct), but they need not interpret that to mean they are gluttons who will never lose weight. Instead, they can acknowledge that they overate, but bear in mind that they do not always overeat.
Finally, there is the question of usefulness: a given belief might be correct, but is it useful? If the belief inhibits you from functioning well in a crisis, it might be best to distract the thought until later.
Once the D (disputation) is added to the ABC (action, belief and consequence) the result is E (energy) rather that lethargy. It is energizing to believe that things do get better, that a given event was not about you, but about a specific situation. With this belief, it is easier to pick oneself up and move forward.
Next time you find yourself thinking pessimistically, examine your beliefs and their consequences. Remember, believing something is true does not make it true. Reexamine your beliefs, look towards a brighter future and continue to move forward.