• Sarah Carter

Learned Optimism

Since the beginning of psychology, it has focused primarily on the defects of the psyche. The doctors, scientist, shrinks, and the rest of the supporting actors have identified essentially all of the known causes and potential warning signs so the guessing game is nearly nonexistent. While that is great news for those affected, or potentially affected, I had not realized until reading page one of this book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasing Fulfillment, that it is really unbalanced. A whole thriving profession dedicated to maybe 20% of the population, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), who say they have experienced some level of mental illness during the year (depression is a mental illness). Even less of the population, less than 5%, experiences serious, lasting mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.). "Relieving the states that make life miserable, it seems, has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority." pg. ix.


It sure seems that way! Thankfully Dr. Seligman has taken up the reigns on bringing the good stuff that makes up the majority back into the forefront. He stands his studies of positive psychology on three pillars: positive emotion, positive traits, and positive institutions pg. xi. You will have to read the whole book to really unravel his thought process on why those three pillars build the foundation of positive psychology as it really does take a whole book to unpack. He has also written a whole book on the focus of today's post. I feel that I can break it down succinctly enough that you will feel informed but not overwhelmed. My confidence in my ability to do this comes from the success Seligman has doing the same thing in chapter six of this book.


Seligman begins chapter six by observing that "optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike" pg. 83 particularly regarding work and health. Not everyone is wired to be a glass-half-full type of person around the clock though. So are the rest of people hosed? No! You can coach yourself into being more optimistic using the ABCDE method Seligman designed and uses himself since he admittedly tends more on the cloudy side of life. This method is based on Seligman's observation that when people say hurtful, accusing things to us we tend to go into defense mode and attempt to dispute them. However, when "we say the same accusing things to ourselves, we usually fail to dispute them - even though they are often false" pg. 93. The ABCDE method is a way to train yourself to dispute your own negative reactionary thoughts so you can focus on the optimistic, positive reality. "The key to disputing your own pessimistic thoughts is to first recognize them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by an external person" pg. 93.


The acronym letters stand for Adversity, Belief, Consequences, Disputation, and Energization. Its the chain of thoughts, reactions, and emotions that you can go through every time you are presented with some adversity to then change your outlook on that event. Essentially it is a method to "lawyer" yourself out of your pessimistic thoughts. This is what you do if someone else says something accusatory but it is what many of us rarely do for our own self-directed accusatory thoughts. Here is an example of me doing this just yesterday after I gave a presentation on Values and Group Dynamics at the Okinawa Leadership Seminar to a group of 75 fellow military spouses:


Adversity: I gave a 40 min speech to an audience of fellow military spouses. My hands shook, my voice sounded way to quiet, I lost my train of thought at least twice, I practically begged for people to participate when I asked questions, and I ended way ahead of my allotted time.


Belief: Obviously I was a flop. No one got anything from a word I said after I worked so hard to put it together. It must have sounded so rushed to those who could even hear it since I spoke way too softly. I wasted my time and their time.


Consequences: The seminar coordinators will never invite me back. The after-seminar-surveys will be brutal so I'll never get another speaking gig while we live on this island. Some of the listeners will certainly tell others not to come to the spring seminar because they would not want their friends to risk having to sit through my mess of a speech.


Disputation: Did anyone actually say anything negative about the speech right after?? Well no. Did people laugh at your jokes?? Yes. Did people participate once you slowed down and asked the question again? Yes. Did conversations around your speech continue in the hallways and small groups afterwards? Yes. So are you sure you were a total flop? No, but I will not know for sure until the surveys are tallied. Do you really think those results will be so different then the evidence from the previous questions? Hummm no I guess not.


Energization: I have started to feel better about how the speech went. Still a little reserved though because I do want to see the surveys but I am less convinced that they will confirm my initial beliefs.


I am admittedly a person who tends towards optimism more often then pessimism so extrapolating this scenario was somewhat unnatural for me. For some of you reading, who tend toward pessimism, this may have sounded spot on or maybe too mild actually. You may find yourself in those pessimistic spirals all too often. This seemingly simple tool could help you reduce the depth/length of those spirals over time.


Our next book is an amazing story of survival, recover, and resiliency that I cannot wait to dive into! It is called Taking My Life Back: My Story of Faith, Determination, and Surviving the Boston Marathon Bombing by Rebekah Gregory. It is sure to be inspiring so head on over to Amazon to order up a copy and join the conversation beginning on Oct 25th.


I love hearing from you! Please post comments here, on any of my social media spaces, or shoot me an email letting me know what you think of the books.

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