Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Learned Optimism?

Marty believes "Optimism may be more useful than the truth".

Useful as in allowing you to live in a healthier, more vibrant and successful fashion, depending on how you measure and define success.

But, if Marty's right, can optimism be learned?

Whether or not that is possible would depend on a number of factors but Marty might make you think again on this subject. Martin Seligman is the former president of the American Psychology Association and director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania, 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. Typically, the more optimistic candidate wins the race if you think back to presidential campaigns such as Clinton vs. Dole. Bush vs. Dukakis, Reagan vs. Mondale, Carter vs. Ford and Obama vs McCain. 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, "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 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 do you do when you'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 a 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.

And here she is now ... ready to shine a little more light on optimism on your day ... 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 http://www.lorettalaroche.com/

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 or hear from BMW thinkers that cross our path (Bitchers, Moaners, Whiners). Typically, the human brain will process about 50,000 - 60,000 thoughts per day, about 80% of which 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.

Is your glass half-full or half-empty?

One could argue both perspectives offer value. The optimist may have invented the airplane but the pessimist thought 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 explore.

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

“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties"

Originally posted November 6, 2008

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