We review the best small business and investing books
Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life
By Martin Seligman
Non-negative thinking, not positive thinking, is the key to success, according to Martin Seligman author of Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life.
Seligman writes: "The optimistic individual makes the most of his talent... .The optimistic individual perseveres."
As a graduate student, Seligman made a significant discovery--dogs can learn their actions are futile and can learn to become helpless. According to Seligman, people, too, can learn to become helpless. And, such negative thinking can lead to depression.
So, what separates optimistic people from more pessimistic people? Seligman says it's the way we explain events and outcomes to ourselves. If something good happens to us, how do we explain it? Was it luck? Or was it the result of our talent?
If something bad happens to us, how do we explain that? Is it that conditions just weren't right? Or did the bad event happen because we're somehow horribly flawed as individuals? Will this flaw eternally damn us in all other endeavors?
After extensive research, Seligman concludes that optimists and pessimists attribute the reasons for success and failure differently. Pessimists tend to attribute failure and bad events to permanent, personal, and pervasive factors. Optimists tend to attribute bad events to non-personal, non-permanent, and non-pervasive factors. Conversely, for good events.
By "permanent," Seligman means factors that will be with you throughout life. By "personal," Seligman means factors that relate to us as individuals. By "pervasive," Seligman means factors that affect our efficacy in other parts of our life.
Seligman writes: "Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope. ... Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair."
Learned Optimism includes a test to determine your own attributional style. And, to improve optimism, Seligman offers a solution called ABCDE. Seligman writes: "When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs .... have consequences."
D is for disputation, where we find evidence against the negative beliefs, alternatives to our negative reasoning, and limit the implication of the beliefs. Seligman writes: "Much of the skill of dealing with setbacks ... consists of learning how to dispute your own first thoughts in reaction to a setback." E is for energization, which we feel after we've disputed our false, negative beliefs.
Seligman points out that optimism is essential to success in many careers and that a lack of optimism limits one's life. For example, salespeople who explain failure in personal terms often don't want to make more sales calls. And, that leads to lower performance. In hiring for certain positions, Seligman says optimism is a key criterion. Seligman worked with Met Life and showed that optimism is a crucial success factor for hiring insurance salespeople.
Organizations, too, such as a hockey team, can develop optimistic or pessimistic ways of explaining poor performance. For anyone interested in handicapping sporting events, CAVE techniques discussed in "Learned Optimism" might be helpful for separating the teams that crumble under pressure from the teams that don't.
Seligman's book shows that most elections tend to be won by the more optimistic candidate. Seligman successfully predicted several races in the 1988 elections, including the presidential primaries, the presidential election, and 25 of 29 senate races.
Seligman writes: "Among Republicans, there was also a clear winner: George Bush, far and away the most optimistic... Dole would fade fast by our predictions." [This was before Viagra].
It would be interesting to see if more current political races have been predicted with that much success. Did they continue their predictions?
The book also has an excellent discussion of the role of optimism and how it affects health. In particular, pessimism weakens the immune system. For example, in one test, rats were given cancer and three groups studied. The amount of cancer injected corresponded to a 50% chance of the rat developing cancer. One group of rats were given conditions where they could control their environment and prevent shocks. One group were given conditions where nothing they did mattered to prevent shocks. And, the control group had nothing special about their conditions and no shocks.
Seligman writes: "...50 percent of the rats not shocked had died, and the other 50% of the no-shock rats had rejected the tumor; this was the normal ratio. As for the rats that mastered shock by pressing a bar to turn it off, 70 percent rejected the tumor. But only 27 percent of the helpless rats, the rats that had experienced uncontrollable shock, rejected the tumor."
Seligman also discusses the beginnings of treatment of patients using psychological therapy for treating physical illness. Because this was started in the 1990's, it would be interesting to know what the results have been.
However, optimism isn't always best. Seligman says a pilot, for example, shouldn't be "optimistic" the wings of his plane won't ice up and fail to de-ice them before a flight. And, Seligman points out that depressed people actually have a more accurate perception of reality than optimistic people (That sort of sucks if you think about it.). Pessimism is useful because it forces us to confront situations where we really have no effectiveness and change course. (Relentlessly optimistic people seem to be somewhat blinded to reality.)
Seligman recommends developing a healthy and flexible optimism. Doing so should allow a person to live a fuller and richer life.