Thursday, April 5, 2007

Learned Optimism

By Martin Seligman
ISBN 0-394-57915-1

Reviewed by Steve Snyder

Want to learn how "learned helplessness" can often lead to depression - a good argument against the "powerlessness" idea of 12-step programs?

And, at the same time, would you like to learn, from evidence gathered in controlled studies, about the emotional, mental and physical health benefits of positive thinking? And how that positive thinking can be developed in a purely secular context?

In other words, for anyone looking for personal growth as part of his or her sober lives, Learned Optimism is just the book for you. Martin E.P. Seligman is professor of social science and the director of clinical training in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

His psychological background is generally from the cognitive therapy school of thought, being one of the early leaders in research in this field back in the 1970s. He developed the theory of learned helplessness in the early 1970s, one of the major blows to behavioral theory.

How does this relate to alcoholism or addiction? Simple. From my personal experience, pessimistic thinking can be an easy trigger to drinking, especially if it is leading into depression. A more optimistic outlook on life, as Seligman shows, usually includes the belief that I have control and effectiveness in how I am living my life. It also has more emotional stability. Both of these facts can make the abstinence journey easier.

Seligman says three specific modes of thought in dealing with negative events in life separate pessimists and optimists.

The first is the belief in the permanence of negative events. The pessimist will say, "Diets never work" while the optimist will say, "I'm just eating out too much right now." The pessimist will say, "Women are always turning me down" while the optimist will say, "She just isn't interested in dating right now."

However, when good things happen, the styles are reversed, Seligman says. The optimist will then say, "I'm always lucky" whereas the pessimist will say, "It's my lucky day today."

The second difference is the belief in the pervasiveness of events.

Pessimists will say, "All bosses are tyrants" or "All men are jerks," whereas the optimist will say, "Mr. Bigstaff is a tyrant" or "Billy Bob is a jerk."

Again, the tables are turned on good events.

When he or she gets an A on a test, the pessimist will say, "I'm smart in math" whereas the optimist will say, "I'm smart."

The third difference in what Seligman calls explanatory style is personalization.

The pessimist believes he or she always causes bad events to happen to him or herself. The pessimist would say, "I have no golfing skill" whereas the optimist would say, "I have no golfing luck" or maybe even, "The wind was blowing" or "The sun was in my eyes."

Again, the pessimist and optimist reverse styles for good events.

At softball, the pessimist might say, "Our team won the game," whereas the optimist says, "I won the game."
"The good news is that pessimists can learn the skills of optimism and permanently improve the quality of their lives," Seligman says. "Even optimists can benefit from learning how to change.

"Becoming an optimist consists … of learning a set of skills about how to talk to yourself when you suffer a personal defeat."

For persons early in sobriety, wanting help to dialogue with their "addict" voices, this is certainly encouraging. For all recovering people familiar with Albert Ellis' ABC method, Seligman's final chapter on how we can become more optimistic will be quite familiar.

In short, for those wanting something "more" out of secular sobriety, this book could be a very good read. Learned Optimism is a bit old, as a 1990 book, but still insightful, I believe.

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