Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Learned Optimism 1: What is a Pessimistic Explanatory Style?

This week I will be blogging on Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism, one of the fundamental books of positive psychology.

I think Seligman's starting point is true and powerful. If, when faced with adversity, you habitually believe that:

a) it is your fault;
b) it is due to a pervasive fault of yours; and
c) that this fault ruins your life; then

many things in your life, and the lives of others you interact with, will be made worse as a result.

In Seligman's terms, a pessimistic explanatory style will produce worse results than an alternative, more optimistic explanation of adversity will.


Brendan said...

I agree completely with that thesis. I'm assuming you will be following up with points where you differ from Seligman? I'm thinking of this quote from your April 21 in particular:

"The simplest way to help the black family would be for fewer black men to commit crimes in the first place."

Which struck me then as a take on black incarceration that emphasized the idea of pervasive personal faults.

Black Sea said...

I think the key word here is "habitually." If you habitually blame yourself for setbacks and disapointments, this is probably a kind of pathology. Even if all this adversity really is your fault, it may still be a kind of pathlogy, in that it's paralyzing.

On the other hand, if you never blame yourself for setbacks and disappointments, this is also a kind of pathology. Part of growing up, in a moral sense, involves recognizing how your own behavior contributes to your own suffering, as well as the suffering of others. A lot of people never want to face that, but once you do, you can start to change your behavior, and you now have an incentive to do so. Nothing much is going to improve until then.

randy said...

here's another angle to this...this is basically what i've learned from living for years w/a signifigant disability(i can't walk at all):

once childhood and youth are over, pretty much any serious problem you have-particularily if it is serious and/or unsolvable-will cause you TO BE TREATED as tho' it were your fault even if it obviously is not.

so whether you see it as your fault or not, you'll be blamed anyway...maybe not consciously, maybe only subtly-but the blame is there.

Gruntled said...

I would think that being blamed for a condition that is not really your fault, or one that you can't do anything to change now even if it were your fault, would be exactly the condition where your own optimism or pessimism makes the most difference in your life.