Most of us experience ups and downs. Without the downs, we would neither appreciate nor recognize the ups and, without the ups, we would be joyless and listless.
While many believe that each individual has a natural set point for happiness that is not changeable, Dr. Martin Seligman believes differently. The director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania lays out his research, findings and recommendations in his book “Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” (Vintage Books, 2006).
As a graduate student in experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman studied dogs, and noticed that some would do nothing when they were shocked. Seligman determined that the dogs had felt the “shocks go on and off regardless of whether they struggled or jumped back or barked or they did nothing at all.”
Therefore, according to Seligman, the dogs “had concluded or ‘learned,’ that nothing they did mattered. So why try?”
Most people have faced situations where they too have felt helpless, times when no efforts seemed to make a difference. Eventually, after becoming worn down, they gave up and did nothing.
Seligman references a study done by graduate student Donald Hiroto while completing his dissertation at Oregon State University. This study noted that about 33 percent of test subjects did not learn helplessness, but continued to persevere. The study also noted that about 10 percent of test subjects never tried, or acted helpless from the start.
Applying this study’s results to the general population, this translates into 10 percent of the population who never try to overcome obstacles, 57 percent of the population who learn to be helpless in the face of failure and 33 percent who never give up.
The good news is that Seligman hypothesized that if helplessness “could be learned, then it could be unlearned.” The benefits of unlearning helplessness would be enormous: continued action, energy, perseverance and results. This ability to unlearn helplessness could potentially benefit 57 percent of the population.
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.