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Pessimism and Mars Bars

My quick and dirty take-aways of: ‘Learned optimism’ by Martin Seligman PhD


Most important to say, is that this isn’t a fluffy, faddy ‘just think positive’ book. It’s a book based on years of scientific research that you will have seen pop up elsewhere as it’s about 30 years old. Here’s my quick and dirty take-aways.

Do you have a tendency toward pessimism? If you do, it’s not the end of the world, honest (and I know you’ll think it is as I am naturally pessimistic myself).

How do you know? Well, do you see setbacks as ‘personal’, ‘permanent’, and ‘pervasive’? Example: “I didn’t get the job” = I’m rubbish, they hated me (personal), no one will ever employ me (permanent), my life is shit (pervasive - one bad thing bleeds into everything). Time to bring out the chocolate, wine, cake, or whatever is your typical drug of choice.

Or do you see things as ‘external’, ‘specific’ and ‘temporary’. Same example. They chose someone else who may have had a particular expertise they wanted (external), I didn’t get that job but I’ve applied for others (specific), I have good experience, I’ll get another job (temporary). On the basis that optimists are unlikely to be reading, I’ve not gone into the perils of being optimistic (there are some! ... but not many).

The first one is obviously the more pessimistic response. So what Claire? I know I’m a pessimist. I know that bad things happen to optimists too and it’s just my thinking - my beliefs - that determine my experience of them. I know that it will probably make me more prone to illness, depression, and lots of other excitements. Well my pessimistic imaginary friend, there is good news.

The author explains how research has shown (and it was incredibly unpopular at the time - in ‘the earth goes around the sun’ territory) that not only can you learn to be helpless (and end up being pessimistic), but you can also learn to be optimistic. Hooray!

So first, here’s what happens when something bad happens - from a pessimistic POV:

A - adversity - not getting a job

B - belief - I’m rubbish

C - consequence - I feel depressed and eat a multi-pack of Mars Bars

It’s a suggestion to practice noting your ABCs if you’re so inclined, to start to see the patterns you are stuck in.

So here comes the solution. The next step is:

D - Disputation or distraction - first distraction. Find a way to say ‘Stop’ to yourself. As you might with a child, use basic distraction. I’ve used a mantra to interrupt thoughts before, ‘no thanks, no thanks’ and it does work to some degree. Alternatively, schedule some time to think it over later. The onslaught is heard and acknowledged and quietens down until the right time, putting you back in charge. Again, I’ve tried this in the past with worry. I was in a particularly stressful period at work and I discovered the idea of scheduling worry time, and I’m not joking, it honestly worked, again, to some degree.

Disputation is the second ‘D’. This is where you basically challenge the thoughts you’re having. What evidence do you have, what alternatives could there be? Couldn’t it be that they just hired someone internally after all, chose someone with particular expertise, haven’t I got things to offer?, I’ve got great friends/partner, I’ve had jobs before and done well, etc.

Finally, comes E - Energisation.- notice what you feel in response to having interrupted the pattern. In this example, it lightens my load to think of evidence, alternatives etc and I (probably :) won’t eat the multi pack of Mars Bars.

He also talks about externalising the voices that tell us we’re rubbish and the like, and suggests getting a friend to say all the negative things you might come up with and then discuping them back. I, of course, would recommend doing this using writing, which is even better because you can do it yourself. In my experience, both personal and with those I’ve coached, the negative voice is often the long suffering part of us that’s desperately trying to protect us from getting hurt, again. Conversing with it can be really healing and help you develop compassion for all parts of yourself.

This book obviously covers alot more and I do recommend it, it has depth but is accessible - not a common combination. If you’re a natural pessimist - it’s useful and could even be life changing.

In the conclusion, the author comments on the pandemic of depression and why it continues to rise. He believes that our preoccupation with the self (and it’s not all our fault by the way) and disconnection to the things our ancestors relied on: family, country and god (or something bigger than ourselves) are the main issues.

One way to make a dent is obviously to connect more and build our sense of community, whatever that means for us. It’s written everywhere that giving and focusing on what we can do to help others can help us - finding meaning as a solitary being is unlikely. Another way is by learning the skill of ‘learned optimism’.

Good luck! And do let me know your thoughts!


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