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Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life Paperback – January 3, 2006
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About the Author
- Publisher : Vintage; Reprint edition (January 3, 2006)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 319 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1400078393
- ISBN-13 : 978-1400078394
- Lexile measure : 1050L
- Item Weight : 8.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.15 x 0.71 x 7.95 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #14,027 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Learned Optimism sets out on a quest to change a fundamental aspect of human personality. While we have all been asked the question, "Is the glass half empty or half full?", who knew a book could help change your answer? Is that an overstatement? Absolutely not.
Seligman explains that people have different ways of explaining events. When an event happens, it can be seen as neutral. The milk spilled; WE are the ones who say that is a 'good' or 'bad' thing. While many self help books try to address the issue of positivity, they advocate blindly holding an optimistic attitude. I have read many pop psychology and self help books, ranging from "The Power of Positive Thinking" to "How to Win Friends and Influence People", to "Think and Grow Rich" (I'm still trying this one - no luck so far). Some of these self-help books advocate an almost faith-based approach to changing one's behavior. Simply will something, and if you desire it enough, you can manifest it! Allow your inner thoughts and desires to carve out your external world! Think positive and you can do anything!
I believe Zig Ziglar said that no matter how positive somebody was, if they aren't a certified cardiovascular surgeon, he wouldn't trust them to give him open heart surgery! I agree, and I think positive thinking without realism, prudence, and planning is pointless. In Learned Optimism, this problem is addressed. Seligman points out that being positive isn't something you turn on and keep on 24/7. When a bad thing happens, an optimistic person doesn't paint over it, declaring "It will be totally fine, I'm happy!". The difference is that an innate optimist would say that negative events are external and temporary.
This distinction is an incredible revelation, and we all do this to an extent! When treated rudely, perhaps by a clerk, a pessimist might declare that "People are rude, this is the way things are.", and that the clerk "Was a jerk". They might be upset or offended, taking the clerk's actions as an attack toward them. An optimist, according to Seligman, THINKS differently. They might say "THIS (particular) Clerk is acting rude." He or she "must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed."
This difference in explanatory style was the key concept I took away from this book. While events simply occur, one's interpretation can be positive or negative. So if it's a choice, then how do we change from being pessimistic to being optimistic?
You'll have to read the book to find out. Either way, just know that while positive psychology is a new field, I gained more from this scientifically accredited book than I did reading 5 self-help books. Apply the concepts and principles within, and you might just surprise yourself! :)
However, the main point and repeated premises are very clear and useful, so I recommend reading it with the following caveat: be willing to skim/skip the parts that aren’t relevant to you. If you‘re intrigued by research & methods, skip the self-help stuff. If you‘re reading to fix a problem in your life, skip the research chapters. Or, consider reading his subsequent books, which I believe focus more on a single aspect of the science &/or advice.
First of all, ‘learned helplessness’ is quite arguably one of the most important and revolutionary concepts in psychology today. It’s made a wonderful contribution to Aaron Becks’s Cognitive Therapy; cognitive behavioral therapy having an unmatched track record for its treatment of depression – an epidemic in our society today. As a result of his research, Seligman offers real, learnable, and proven effective techniques for learning to be more optimistic. It is certainly one of my favorite concepts in psychology.
Furthermore, I love that he challenges the notion of the exponential rise in depression today as being a largely genetic phenomenon. I found this to be some very refreshing common sense. The unprecedented level of depression in this society today cannot be attributed to biology (or solely to biology) – something else is at work here. I don’t mean to say that there is no biological basis for depression – there most certainly is. However, it only makes sense that something in our society is going on, perhaps at times triggering particular genes on a wide scale, to create such an unprecedented level of depression. I found the last chapter to be very insightful where he examines radical individualism (he calls it the ‘Maximal Self’) as the source of depression from a more sociological position – an often overlooked source for depression in contemporary society.
The three major hypotheses of explanatory style were also quite enlightening: 1) Mother’s Explanatory Style; 2) Adult Criticism: Teachers and Parents; and 3) Children’s Life Crisis. In addition to these hypotheses of explanatory style are the three essential aspects of explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.
While I did obtain some solid information/advice in this book, it has some problems and I believe Seligman has some holes in his argument.
The main problem for me was that Seligman seemed to create too much of a mutually exclusive relationship between optimism and realism. One quote I found rather disturbing to illustrate my point: “The pessimist seems to be at mercy with reality, whereas the optimist has a massive defense against reality that maintains good cheer in the face of a relentless indifferent universe” (p. 111) – Sorry, Dr. Seligman, I may be misreading you, but you lost me here. While this was somewhat remedied toward the end of the book, it felt a little too inconsistent with the rest of the book’s tone.
Tying into this, not only does Seligman not take nearly enough of a look at ‘false’ or ‘misguided’ optimism, he seems to – at times – endorse it. This is a serious problem that has not been examined adequately (I suspect that he generated a lot of empirical data, and was a little too eager to tailor his theory to fit in with this). Having spent some time in corporate America, I believe this false optimism is creating record levels of denial in our country, which seem to be extending at an alarming rate – all in the name of being more optimistic. Only towards the end of the book does he seem to write more about the perils of optimism with a brief section in the middle regarding depressives having a more accurate memory and owning up much more readily to both their failures and their successes rather than the optimists who tend to look upon the past through rose-colored glasses.
In all fairness, he does write a little bit about the problem of a lack of personal responsibility today and how he has no interest in personally endorsing this kind of psychology. Again, I just didn’t feel like he spent enough time here.
Lastly, on a minor note, I believe he is too overconfident in his beliefs why women suffer depression at a rate twice that of men. While this is an established statistic, there is much debate over what this statistic means exactly. Are women somehow biochemically or hormonally predisposed to depression? Perhaps. Or do they report it more readily than men? Do men hide their depression through substance abuse or other non-constructive outlets? – I believe Seligman is too simplistic here in his offered explanation.
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The Dr has spent his entire working life work in psychology, seemingly in the area of optimism. He has padded out most of the book with memoirs, almost, of how he reached his conclusions - the co-workers, the tests, the experiments (including using electric shocks on various lab animals, or not, in order to train them to be helpless, or not) - it covers 3 decades of his career.
Large portions of it read like a history of science book, and it's often quite dry. The book could have been a quarter of the length really.
But when he does offer something practical for someone looking to improve some aspect of themselves it gets good, in my opinion. The first really useful part (ch3?) is a fairly long questionnaire to determine your levels of optimism - a proper one with dozens of questions that you can't manipulate the outcome of. I turned out to be moderately pessimistic, which I could have guessed, but I feel it was properly determined.
About five chapters discussing how he conducted his research follow, yawn. But it does all prove the book is based on real science - experiments, measurements, observation, and therefore credible evidence. Not BS with an expectation that you will just believe what he says.
He suggests people who are pessimistic tend to assume that they have little control over all events in their lives, and look for evidence to support their view - i.e. they worry. Optimistic people tend to assume a degree of control, and don't place blame somewhere and leave it at that. i.e pessimistic people have learned, through experience, to be the way they are. Further more he suggests optimism can be learned through interpreting day to day events differently.
Then begins with what I actually bought the book to find out. And what he describes seems to be reframing, as found in NLP. Properly tested by science however. He gives a five step method of using it to rework day to day issues and interactions, though it is equally applicable to old problems, bad memories and maybe whole life strategies.
He suggests you practice using use this method with pen and paper five times over two days to get it fixed in your mind - after which it starts to become second nature. I find myself applying it in my head to get the best out of many situations daily.
Time will tell whether this book changes my life, but two months after reading it I'm still working with it. I see that there is always more than one aspect to any event or human interaction than the obvious negative one, which gives me more leeway.
Seligman advises that depression rates climb due to psychological and cultural factors: the overemphasised individual, the reduction of the commons. It doesn't take a Marxist to see this.
More could be said on the evolutionary psychology of the topic - the discussion here is a bit sparse. This is a book which wants to create doers out of ruminators. Concepts are neatly wrapped in useful examples, not lengthy argumentation.
Some of you may be considering this book in lieu of treatment for serious mental illness. It is not for that, as excellent as it is. This is a book of essential recipes: treatment and therapy provide the ingredients.
The much argued cause(s) of depression seem to be falling into very separate camps, of which never the twain shall agree. The biochemists, the sociologist, the behaviouralists and spiritualists. Each is convinced it knows the causes of this pervasive affliction.
In our recent past it was found that diseases like small pox, cholera and plague were not in fact punishments from God but caused by external pathogens. Since then appropriate treatments have been developed and luckily most of those diseases have now been all but iradicated in the western world. So then, Is it possible that Seligman has discovered the cause-all explanation for our depression epidemic in the guise of 'learned helplessness'? It's certainly an exciting prospect and personal experience would definitely supports it even if the research didn't.
My only criticism would be that the techniques used to cure the pessimistic thoughts that lead to helplessness and depression are more or less standard CBT fare. Not to say they are ineffective but there are more comprehensive books out there on the subject.
The chapters on individualism and meaninglessness are also highly resonant and my guess will be for many other readers too. The current approach for non chemical treatment of depression seems largely a band aid one. Exercise, sunlight, positive thinking etc. But it's very difficult to experience lasting happiness in this life without ascribing it to a deeper transcendent meaning. I'm glad Seligman brought this up.
In all a good book for therapist and anyone interested in the subject of mental well being.