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Friday, July 31, 2009

Learning to be Optimistic

Can you learn to be happy and optimistic? According to Martin Seligman, Ph.D., American psychologist and researcher, you can.

Over the years, Martin Seligman's work has focused on depression, pessimism and optimism. His early studies on depression and learned helplessness (i.e., that you are stuck and nothing will ever change so why bother to try to change your circumstances) are well known. He has concluded that people can learn to be optimistic, and he says he has extensive research to prove it.

Learning to be Optimistic

Martin Seligman - "Father of Positive Psychology"
Seligman is considered by many to be the "father of positive psychology." Traditional psychology tends to deal with psychological pathology. Its focus is on mental illness. Positive psychology looks at wellness. It's a strengths-based perspective. Positive psychology looks at what's right with a client rather than only what's wrong. The positive psychology movement was built on the work of psychologists Abraham Maslow (Maslow's hierarchy of needs) and Carl Rogers (client-centered psychotherapy). One of the big differences between their work and Seligman's is that Seligman has a large body of research to support his theories.

Seligman recommends looking at how you tend to think. Do you tend to be an optimist or a pessimist? Or are you somewhere in between? In his book, Learned Optimism, which I recommend, he provides step-by-step guidelines on how to change habitual pessimism into a more optimistic way of thinking.

Seligman suggests looking at particular areas where you face adversity and asking yourself what beliefs you have about them, and the consequences of your beliefs (the ABCs). So, for instance, one example he gives is of a woman who is dieting. She has been doing very well and has lost weight. One day, she goes out with friends, has a couple of drinks and eats a couple of Nachos. Afterwards, she feels badly that she has gone off her diet and she engages in all-or-nothing thinking: I went off my diet. I'm probably going to gain back the weight I lost, so I might as well go all the way and eat a whole chocolate cake and whatever other snacks I want because I've already blown it. So, the adversity she is facing is that she has gone off her diet. The belief is that she has totally blown it, which is a distortion in her thinking. The consequences are that she gives up. In this case, Seligman recommends that she look at her thinking and challenge her usual pattern of pessimism. Rather than giving up, she can say to herself: Yes, I went off my diet tonight but, in reality, I really didn't eat or drink that much and I can resume my diet again--rather than giving up. This example is one of many in his book, Learned Optimism.

Martin Seligman, Ph.D., author of the book, Learned Optimism
Learning to be optimistic, according to Seligman, is not a matter of being Pollyannish or delusional. For instance, he describes certain situations where there is risk involved where learned optimism is not appropriate: A pilot who is trying to decide whether to de-ice the plane again should err on the side of caution rather than assuming that everything will be okay. Or, a doctor who is giving a patient news about a terminal illness needs to be realistic as well as empathetic with the patient rather than trying to "look at the bright side." That doesn't mean that there can't be hope, which there may be. It means being sensitive to the patient and starting with a realistic picture of where the patient is right now.

In addition to Learned Optimism, I also recommend Seligman's book, Authentic Happiness. In Authentic Happiness, you can learn about your signature strengths. Seligman also has a web site where you can discover your signature strengths: ( ). Some of the strengths that are measured in his survey are: love of learning, curiosity, social intelligence, creativity, sense of purpose, humor and playfulness, modesty and humility, the ability to forgive, diligence and perseverance, gratitude, critical thinking, and much more. These strengths are not static--they can change over time as you change. I recommend getting to know your signature strengths so you can use and build on them in your life.

Another book that I recommend is called Happier is by psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. ( Ben-Shahar's class on positive psychology at Harvard was attended by thousands of students and it was one of their most popular classes.

I'll be writing more about postive psychology in future posts.

I am a licensed psychotherapist and coach in NYC.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, feel free to call me at (212) 726-1006.

photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc

photo credit: HerryLawford via photopin cc

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