Jackie Gingrich Cushman

The current budget impasse might have made you a bit blue. Ups and downs are normal in life, but when the potential of a debt default is the news, it's easy to forget the ups.

In "Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life," Martin Seligman provides a map to a more optimistic outlook.

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 and times when no efforts seemed to make a difference. Eventually, after becoming worn down, they gave up and did nothing.

Some of us might feel the same way regarding the current state of politics.

A study referenced by Seligman 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."


Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Jackie Gingrich Cushman is a speaker, syndicated columnist, socialpreneur, and author of "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," and co-author of “The 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours”.