Thursday, November 6, 2008

Learned Optimism?

Have you noticed that in the wake of Barack Obama's victory in the Presidential elections on Tuesday night, people suddenly seem to be more optimistic?

Those who are naturally upbeat are re-convincing and re-telling themselves that, "Yes, the world can become a better place".

Those who are naturally cynical default to a position that sounds like, "We'll just see how long this will last".

The pragmatist analyzes the impact of this injection of hope, wondering, "How will this affect people's moods and business results"?

According to Martin Seligman, "Optimism may be more useful than the truth".

But, if that's true, can optimism be learned?

Whether or not that is possible would depend on a number of factors but Seligman might make you think again on this subject. Martin is the former president of the American Psychology Association and director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who found a way to rank individuals on an optimism-pessimism scale. In a longitudinal study of school children, those scoring highest for pessimism were most likely later to suffer depression. High scores for optimism predicted excellence in everything from sports to life-insurance sales (a finding that saved Metropolitan Life millions of dollars in personnel selection).

Optimism wins votes as well. You don't have to look too far back over recent elections and ask, which candidate was most optimistic? Bush vs. Kerry. Clinton vs. Dole. Bush vs. Dukakis, Reagan vs. Mondale, Carter vs. Ford. In every single pairing, the president who seemed the most optimistic won. Analysing campaign speeches for the prevalence of optimistic words and ideas, Martin Seligman predicted the winners of the 1988 presidential and Senate elections more accurately than veteran political forecasters.

"I used to be an agent of both truth and happiness,but research is increasingly challenging that view. Optimists have a set of self-serving illusions that enable them to maintain good cheer and health in a universe essentially indifferent to their welfare". Seligman adds that, "Optimists are more resistant to infectious illness and are better at fending off chronic diseases of middle age. In one study, we looked at 96 men who had their first heart attack in 1980. Within eight years, 15 of the 16 most pessimistic men died of a second heart attack, but only five of the 16most optimistic men died".

Seligman believes depressed people may need to adopt the same self-serving illusions that most normal people hold. He reasons that since we can choose how we think, styles of thinking can become habits as we learn to control our thoughts as we would our muscles.

So, Marty, what does one do when they're in a funk?

"My recommendation is to do something pleasurable that will distract you from your troubles; fun distractions because studies show, if you think about problems in a negative frame of mind, you come up with fewer solutions. And you're likely to spiral into deeper depression. By boosting mood and self-esteem, people with pessimistic tendencies can break that cycle and free themselves to think more creatively.It takes most people a few weeks to get the knack, but once the technique is learned, the less likely they are to relapse"

Someone who has been successfully applying and sharing the Seligman approach is a Massachusetts gal who has been delighting readers, live audiences, and TV viewers for more than 20 years with wacky and wise insights about life, love, and the insanity of the modern world. Caught her performance at the Tony Robbins event in Halifax back in February and here she is now ... ready to shine a little more light on optimism - the one and only, Loretta LaRoche!

Loretta has been nominated for local and prime time Emmy Awards, has appeared on CNN, ABC and NBC affiliates and has authored 6 books including Relax: You May Only Have a Few Minutes Left, Life is Not a Stress Rehearsal, Life Is Short- Wear Your Party Pants, and her latest book Kick Up Heels Before You're Too Short to Wear Them. You can learn more at

What Loretta and people like her do is give us a respite from the same bad news we can get any day from the news media. Why do some of us crave that daily doze of gloom and doom that makes you feel your entire mind and body is under assault? Has anyone ever attended one of those group BMW sessions (Bitching, Moaning and Whining) only to leave refreshed and ready to make the world a better place?

Typically, the human brain will process about 50,000 - 60,000 thoughts per day, of which about 80% will be either negative or self critical. In other words, it takes a concentrated effort to block out crap that brings us down and focus on good stuff that ultimately makes a difference in what we do, how we do it and who we do it with.

Half-full or half-empty?

Much has already been philosophized on this subject and it does provide great conversational fodder. One could argue that both perspectives offer value since the optimist may invent the airplane but the pessimist thinks about the parachute.

Perhaps, the question of learned optimism needs to focus less on what we already know but more so on what we are willing to learn.

Or maybe, there are "those" days when we just need to give ourselves a good swift kick in the glass.

What do you do on "those" days?

“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties" HARRY S. TRUMAN


felixthecoolestcat said...

I realy like the kick in the glass technique...

Darren said...

I'm with Felix the Coolest Cat!

The 'kick in the glass'line works like a brain tattoo if used in the context of 'glass half empty' or 'glass half full'.

For me, the greatest obstacle to our own success lies in our ability to achieve a different level of thinking.

Mike Shanks said...

I find that working with in your community as a volunteer allows you a reminder of how fortunate you are.

Join a local service club. Kiwanis, Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Kiwanis.