In his book, Learned Optimism, the author Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. introduces his ideas about optimism and pessimism with this fictional story:
The father is looking down into the crib at his sleeping newborn daugh- ter, just home from the hospital. His heart is overflowing with awe and gratitude for the beauty of her, the perfection.
The baby opens her eyes and stares straight up.
The father calls her name, expecting that she will turn her head and look at him. Her eyes don’t move.
He picks up a furry little toy attached to the rail of the bassinet and shakes it, ringing the bell it contains. The baby’s eyes don’t move.”
His heart has begun to beat rapidly. He finds his wife in their bedroom and tells her what just happened. “She doesn’t seem to respond to noise at all,” he says. “It’s as if she can’t hear.”
“I’m sure she’s all right,” the wife says, pulling her dressing gown around her. Together they go into the nursery.
She calls the baby’s name, jingles the bell, claps her hands. Then she picks up the baby, who immediately perks up, wiggling and cooing.
“My God,” the father says. “She’s deaf.”
“No she’s not,” the mother says. “I mean, it’s too soon to say a thing like that. Look, she’s brand-new. Her eyes don’t even focus yet.”
“But there wasn’t the slightest movement, even when you clapped as hard as you could.” .
The mother takes a book from the shelf. “Let’s read what’s in the baby book,” she says. She looks up “hearing” and reads out loud: ” ‘Don’t be alarmed if your newborn fails to startle at loud noises or fails to orient toward sound. The startle reflex and attention to sound often take some
time to develop. Your pediatrician can test your child’s hearing neuro- logically.’
“There,” the mother says. “Doesn’t that make you feel better?””Not much,” the father says. “It doesn’t even mention the other possibility, that the baby is deaf. And all I know is that my baby doesn’t hear a thIng. I’ve got the worst feeling about this. Maybe it’s because my grand- father was deaf. If that beautiful baby is deaf and it’s my fault, I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” says the wife. “You’re going off the deep end. We’ll call the pediatrician first thing Monday. In the meantime, cheer up. Here, hold the baby while I fix her blanket. It’s all pulled out.”
The father takes the baby but gives her back to his wife as soon as he can. All weekend he finds himself unable to open his briefcase and prepare for next week’s work. He follows his wife around the house, ruminating about the baby’s hearing and about the way deafness would ruin her life. He imagines only the worst: no hearing, no development of language, his beautiful child cut off from the social world, locked in soundless isolation. By Sunday night he has sunk into despair.
The mother leaves a message with the pediatrician’s answenng service asking for an early appointment Monday. She spends the weekend doing her exercises, reading, and trying to calm her husband.
The pediatrician’s tests are reassuring, but the father’s spirits remain low. Not until a week later, when the baby shows her first startle, to the backfire of a passing truck, does he begin to recover and enjoy his new daughter again.
The story illustrates two different ways of looking at the world.
Whenever something bad happens to him – a tax audit, a marital squabble, even a frown from his employer-he imagines the worst: bankruptcy and jail, divorce, dismissal. He is prone to depression; he has long bouts of listlessness; his health suffers. She, on the other hand, sees bad events in their least threatening light. To her, they are temporary and surmountable, challenges to be overcome. After a reversal, she comes back quickly, soon regaining her energy. Her health is excellent.
The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.
These two habits of thinking about causes have consequences. Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get de- pressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and college, at work and on the playing field. They regularly exceed the predictions of aptitude tests. When optimists run for office, they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually good. They age well, much freer than most of us from the usual physical ills of middle age. Evidence suggests they may even live longer.
A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent but, according to Martin E. P. Seligman, pessimism is escapable.
Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes (“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”), but by learning a new set of cognitive skills. Far from being the creations of boosters or of the popular media, these skills were discovered in the laboratories and clinics of leading psychologists and psychiatrists and then rigorously validated. (From Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life)
Learned Optimism (How to Change Your Mind and Your Life)
According to Martin E. P. Seligman in his book Learned Optimism (How to Change Your Mind and Your Life), whether you are a pessimist or an optimist depends on how you explain bad events to yourself.
• Your mother and teachers had the most influence on how you explain events to yourself (your “explanatory style.)”
• Pessimists attribute bad life events to permanent, pervasive causes. However, they believe that good events are temporary, impersonal, and specific.
• The projection of present despair into the future causes hopelessness.
• By contrast, optimists externalize adversity’s causes and see them as fleeting and specific. They credit good events to personal, permanent, pervasive causes.
• Optimists are much quicker than pessimists to get over a setback and try again.
• Pessimists have one advantage over optimists: they are better at realistically assessing their situations.
• Optimists tend to exaggerate the control they have over events.
• Pessimism is a reliable predictor of depression.
• Through cognitive therapy, it’s possible to change your “explanatory style” to be more optimistic.