My friend Peter’s mum contracted a virus when she was pregnant with him. This attacked his embryonic joints and restricted his movements, hindering the development of his muscles. On top of this he was born blue because the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. The midwife, ready to give up on him, revived him only because of his mother’s shouting. The doctors’ predictions were dour indeed, and included that Peter would never walk. Peter’s mum, however, was a woman of immense faith, who met the bad news with a hefty dose of optimism. She kept a picture of Christ Jesus in the living room, to which she would point, saying to Peter: “One day you will focus on this picture and walk across this living room.” When he was little Peter got around on his bottom. Eventually, when he was seven, he decided to stand up. This turned out to be immensely painful, for his feet had never carried weight. For weeks he would practice getting up, holding on to the cabinet, and trying to take a step. One day whilst his mother was busy in the kitchen, he decided to walk across the room. Locking the Christ picture in his eyes, he swung out one leg and then the other, and stood unsupported for the first time. Very slowly, never taking his eyes from the picture, he took step by step. When he was halfway through the room, he called out to his mother, who came running. “Ah,” she said, “that’s marvellous Darling. Now just keep going until you get to the other side.” After this she disappeared in the kitchen so he could not see her cry, and Peter successfully crossed the room. Today he lives a good life, is a gifted artist, and sports a chest full of kindness.
Today’s topic is optimism. Our guiding light in discussing optimism is Martin Seligman, who, incidentally, declares himself to be a “dyed in the wool pessimist”. He writes that he relies daily on practicing the techniques he preaches to overcome his inner voice of gloom. Seligman believes that only pessimists are able to write soberly and sensibly about optimism.1 I have come to love “Marty” for humorous comments like these, as well as his openness, vision and sincerity.
Seligman’s research journey began with studying dogs’ responses to being exposed to discomfort such as mild electric shock and high pitched tones.x These experiments led to break-through discoveries in the area of learned helplessness, producing findings that were transferrable to emotional learning in human beings. The results showed that dogs placed in situations in which there was nothing they could do to stop the discomfort learned to give up, and later on stopped trying to get out of discomfort, even though escape or control would have been possible. The learned helplessness experiments fundamentally challenged the theories of behaviorism. Behaviorism, a mainstay of psychology, had held that a person’s behaviour was solely determined by his or her experiences of reward and punishment, and that only action could be learnt, not thought or expectation.2
Researcher Donald Hiroto then followed up with similar experiments involving individuals, finding that they, too, could learn helplessness. An interesting common outcome with the dog studies was that approximately one out of every three resisted being made helpless, and about one in ten was helpless from the start, i.e. at no point tried to alleviate the discomfort. This led to the question why some people resisted and others never bent to situations which should make them helpless.3
Seligman stresses that his main interest was always in alleviating suffering. He arrived at positive psychology pursuing this aim. Some argue that positive psychology is a pop-psychology, but I believe it has emerged at the time when our world needs it badly to address the avalanche of depression. If you have experienced depression you know the suffering involved; it is so tremendous that death seems a better alternative. Death, however, is not an alternative; positive psychology alongside traditional treatment is.
In their endeavor to find ways to alleviate helplessness and depression, Seligman and other scientists began focusing on the why question, and inspired by British psychologist John Teasdale, considered the implications of explanatory style. Seligman concludes that the way we explain bad events can be a cause of helplessness and depression, and these conditions can be alleviated by applying therapeutic approaches that challenge our habitual pessimistic explanations.4
There are optimistic and pessimistic ways to explain what happens in our lives. Whether we consider good or bad events, there are three aspects in explaining them that carry weight: 1. How permanent we conceive them to be in terms of time; 2. How pervasive we think they are, i.e. how widely spread they are in space; and 3. How personal they are, i.e. who or what caused them.5
Thanks to Martin Seligman and Penn University, you can take the optimism test by visiting https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter. You will need to register or use your existing log-in. If you score very highly on optimism and hopefulness you can ignore next week’s blog. Everyone else should consider reading on.
Don’t underestimate the importance of optimism; it can be the ingredient you need to make your life a success. In the 1980s Seligman and fellow researchers studied the relationship of explanatory style and winning in the American Baseball League and the National Basketball Association’s Atlantic Division. The findings really made me sit up: They showed that a team would reliably enjoy greater success in the new season if the players’ and coaches’ statements were optimistic in the face of defeat in the previous one. Further, the optimism scores of individual players, coaches and the team taken together predicted success and failure more readily than did their talent and quality. The optimistic teams were able to bounce back from losing, performed better under pressure, and more readily won down the track.6
My partner is a soccer enthusiast, to put it mildly. At the moment, his home team the Hamburger Sportsverein, for whom he had played in his youth, is perilously close to descend into Germany’s second league for the third year in a row. The team has had some 8 coaches in this time. At the beginning of the last season HSV invested 34 million Euros in new players, yet it arrived pretty much at the same place on the ladder. My Honey, of course, is bursting with ideas and approaches that could ensure the HSV’s steady ascent up the German Soccer League. I cannot help but think that the one investment they need to make is to learn how to be optimists. It’s the key that can unlock ascent, also for us as individuals.
x Please note that Seligman was very uncomfortable with conducting animal experiments, and after his initial work with dogs never returned to the practice. My own conviction led me to actively campaign against animal experiments in my younger years, and I have not changed my mind. However, I need to tell the story as it is.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015