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Learned Optimism - Livin' the Good Life

Jan. 29th, 2008

04:00 pm - Learned Optimism

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I am thoroughly enjoying a new book by the same author that wrote AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS. It's another research book called LEARNED OPTIMISM by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. This guy seems to be forever doing studies with various prominant university researchers, and he outlines what they did and how the experiments turned out in this book. He says that people are generally born optimistic, and they learn to be pessimistic when they are continually faced with situations that make them feel helpless. He says that pessimistic people are in a state of "learned helplessness", and that it sometimes leads to depression. He spends a lot of time writing about depression, and its cure, in this book. According to him, the cure for depression is "learned optimism" or thinking differently. He outlined an experiment that his colleagues did where rats were taught to push a button in order to avoid a shock. Some of the rats could control the shock by pushing the button, but other rats could push the button all they wanted and it only stopped the shock some of the time. Those rats gave up trying after a while, where the first rats kept pushing. Then they tried an experiment with humans where they were asked to contol a light coming on by pressing a button. For one group the light always came on ONLY when they pushed the button. Another group had no control. The light came on randomly whether they pressed the button or not. Sometimes it came on when they pushed, and sometimes it didn't. Before the experiment, all of these people had been diagnosed with either depression or non-depression. After the experiment, each person was asked to judge how much control they had over the light coming on. The depressed people were extremely accurate about when they did and didn't have control. The non-depressed people judged accurately when they had control, but the author was very surprised that when they had NO control "they still judged that they had a great deal of control." This is classic optimism. I laughed so hard when I read this! I think it's because it reminds me of Steve so much. I've observed this kind of behavior hundreds of times over the years from Steve, and unfortunately, I never called it optimism. But, according to the book, he is a true optimist (though he has learned pessimism over his lifetime, he always resorts to optimism when push comes to shove. This is one of the things I love about Steve.) I'll write more later, because I was very interested in what Seligman had to say about optimism and politics. Next post...