My psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, Marty, as we knew him, Martin E.P. Seligman on his book jackets, was my senior by about ten years. He grew up in the late forties and fifties, old enough to remember the terror that polio held for families and the relief that the Salk and Sabine vaccines provided. By his account, an encounter with Salk in 1984 changed his life.
Marty’s work to that date had convinced him that optimists were healthier, both mentally and physically. Compared to pessimists, they were more persistent, more likely to achieve mastery of any particular skill or domain of knowledge, more likely to succeed in the mundane business of life, and even more likely to resist physical disease. Pessimists, the real object of his study, while more realistic (life is hard), were more likely than optimists to become clinically depressed, more likely to abandon their endeavors, and more likely to suffer all manner of illness, even cancer. As a psychologist who mixed experimental and clinical interests, Marty aspired to identify pessimists and the subset of depressives with the goal of alleviating their suffering.
[Salk] proposed that Marty use his work to develop what amounted to a vaccine against depression and all the ills that follow from pessimism.
Salk suggested that Marty think bigger. He proposed that Marty use his work to develop what amounted to a vaccine against depression and all the ills that follow from pessimism. Of course, depression and its consequence, teen suicide, is an epidemic that has only gotten worse in the intervening decades, Marty’s labors notwithstanding. But good science suggests that Marty was on the right path, if we’ll only follow him. In Learned Optimism first published in 1991 and its sequel, The Optimistic Child, 1995, Marty proposed that we could evaluate and teach optimism to everyone, not just those already suffering from depression or identified as pessimists uniquely at risk for depression. Anyone raising or educating a child can benefit from Marty’s life’s work detailed in his memoir, The Hope Circuit, published in 2018.
I can’t teach all you need to know about to help you inoculate the children in your care against pessimism and depression in this short essay, but I can explain the foundations of Marty’s work, what optimism is, why it’s important, how you might measure it, and a little of how you might nurture it.
What is it?
How optimistic we are depends on our explanatory style. Each of us, and each of our children has one. Say as a child I flunk a test at school, I react to what happened on three dimensions. First, was it personal, that is, was it my fault, or can I point the finger of blame elsewhere, e.g. “the teacher didn’t clearly explain the material.” Second, was the cause of my failure pervasive, “I don’t understand math, I’m lousy at schoolwork” or specific, there’s something about quadratic equations that I just don’t get. Third, is the cause of my failure permanent? Do I lament that I’ll never understand math (or quadratic equations), or do I believe that I simply have to work harder, or find a tutor and I can fix the problem. The most pessimistic among us tend to conclude, often without evidence, that the causes of bad events are personal, pervasive and permanent. The optimists, by contrast, place blame outside themselves (seemingly an unattractive shirking of responsibility and finger pointing), find very specific explanations for their failures, and believe that their failure was temporary, something that they can fix with effort or assistance.
The optimists, by contrast, place blame outside themselves (seemingly an unattractive shirking of responsibility and finger pointing) . . . .
The converse is true of good events-I get an A plus on the same math test. A pessimist will take no personal credit-“I was lucky to have a great teacher.” He will not generalize his success. “I just happen to have clicked with quadratic equations.” He will view his success as temporary. “I may have done well here, but I’ve failed before and harder material awaits.” The optimist will think the opposite: “I got an A because I’m brilliant, no thanks to anyone else. I’m not just good at quadratic equations, I’m great at math and indeed all activities requiring insight and problem-solving ability-oh, hell I’m just smart, so of course I got an A.” Will it last? “Of course, I’m sharp today, but why shouldn’t it always be so?” Consistency be damned, if the news is good, the optimist takes the credit and shines a celebratory light on all his endeavors present and future.
Why Optimism is important?
Optimists may be annoying, full of themselves and just plain wrong, but they “get the girl.” If they don’t get the first girl, they’ll get the next one. Why? The pessimist gives up. The optimist persists.
My favorite Marty anecdote illustrates why optimism is important. At a conference where he was scheduled to speak, he met the CEO of Metropolitan Life who described the nearly impossible task of recruiting, training and retaining life insurance salesmen. There is no more daunting task than selling life insurance. The salesman is (quite rightly, whole life insurance sucks) told to jump in a lake dozens of times a week. Faced with universal disdain and dismissal by prospective customers, the vast majority of life insurance salesmen drop out in short order, wasting Metropolitan’s training and recruitment resources. Metropolitan had screened salesmen based on knowledge and ability to learn insurance concepts. Marty, by contrast, developed a test that identifies explanatory styles. It turns out that the optimists wildly outsell the carefully selected insurance nerds. The more optimistic, the more they sell and the longer they last in the job. Marty became rich screening salesman candidates for Metropolitan. So much for psychology being a mere academic pursuit.
The optimist persists.
So if people with optimistic explanatory styles are more successful in life, and the research showed they were not just more successful but less depressed and just plain happier, we could recruit a better work force by identifying the optimists in the pool of candidates. But where would that leave the rest of us?
People tend to think that our moods affect our thoughts. You might expect gloomy people to adopt a pessimistic explanatory style. But the foundational and counterintuitive insight of Marty’s psychology, Cognitive Psychology, is that causation runs in the other direction. Our thoughts affect our moods. If you can change your thoughts, your explanatory style, you can change your life.
How do you measure Optimism?
Marty and his colleagues could identify where each person stood on a scale of optimism and pessimism in two different ways. The first was with a lengthy questionnaire, asking how the subject will explain myriad situations if they happened to her. An adult version of the questionnaire is found in Learned Optimism first published in 1991, a kid’s version in The Optimistic Child, 1995, the book where Marty applies his ideas about explanatory style to child-rearing. An alternate route allowed the evaluation of subjects who didn’t know that they were being studied. Unstructured text could be evaluated for the frequency of statements that matched the optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles above. One entertaining experiment showed that by scoring the text of press statements made by the coaches of professional sports teams after wins and losses for their explanatory style you could predict which team would cover its betting point spread and pay off. It’s a tedious way to cash a bet, but it illustrates the importance of a coach (and by inference, a parent or a teacher) with an optimistic explanatory style.
Consider the text of the Gettysburg Address which might be scored for optimism or pessimism. The bad event, the death of multitudes, was not a permanent setback for the cause, but a sad but critical step on the road to the successful preservation of a great democratic experiment. The dead did not fail through any fault of their own, their sacrifice was the foundation and inspiration to the living, no real failure at all but a noble example. The losses in the battle were not the ultimate and pervasive fate of the nation; the nation would prevail. Mournful Abe without once minimizing the horror of war, was an optimist. Further research scoring political speech demonstrated that the more optimistic politician wins elections, just like the basketball team with the more optimistic coach covers the point spread. Think of Reagan’s “morning in America” political ad campaign. My younger readers can google it.
How to Nurture Optimism
- Present your child with progressively more difficult challenges. A sense of mastery and optimism can only come from overcoming difficulties and improving skills. Kids love this stuff. Don’t shield your child from age appropriate challenges, including those that require effort and skill a bit beyond what your think can be routinely expected.
- Do not protect your child from frustration or attempt to boost self-esteem directly. Don’t tell your child how wonderful she is in order to console her when she gives up in despair. Instead praise effort, grit and determination. Do not take over and finish a difficult task for your child; it teaches only resignation and helplessness.
- Do not berate your child for qualities thought to be pervasive and immutable. Don’t tell her she’s stupid, uncoordinated, lazy or even hopeless at the piano.
- Do help your child interpret her setbacks optimistically, consistent with the truth. If your child is failing to understand some bit of schoolwork and pronounces himself dumb, explain that this is not correct, he is simply having a difficulty with a particular sort of challenge. Remind him that there are other things he has already shown himself to be good at. Show him that the condition is temporary and can be changed with hard work and practice. Support the necessary work with your attention and encouragement. Where you can’t provide the support needed, try and find it elsewhere. Teach if it’s necessary, but don’t take over.
In short, help your child develop an optimistic explanatory style, by disputing pessimistic interpretations of bad events and encouraging optimistic interpretations of success. Statistically, your child will not likely become a rock star, a famous author or President of the United States, but hard work, grit and determination will be reliably rewarded In whatever endeavors your child chooses to pursue. Just as important, successes large and small achieved with effort, not handed over as a kind of entitlement, will lead to a happier, healthier child and adult.
Marty’s work did not end with the Optimistic Child. He went on to be elected as President of the American Psychological Association and to establish the field of Positive Psychology which concerns itself broadly with all the ways psychology can help people who are not mentally ill thrive, find happiness and discover meaning in their lives. This effort goes beyond altering explanatory styles and theorizes, among other things, that each of us has signature strengths and that authentic happiness consists in large measure of identifying those strengths and utilizing them in our work and pastimes, ideally in a cause larger than ourselves. Though an optimist may sell obscenely large amounts of whole life insurance of dubious worth, and make a more than adequate living doing so, it is unlikely that this is the route to authentic happiness, and Authentic Happiness, 2002 happens to be the title of both another of Marty’s books and his website, https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/learn. His work is well worth the time, but don’t expect a quick new age fix to all that ails you. An effortless path to life satisfaction would be antithetical to everything this man stands for.
That said, he did mention one remarkably simple intervention in his memoir that he had dubbed “Three Blessings.” Try this: Each night, before retiring, write down three things that went well that day with your brief explanation of why those things went well. Evidence shows that this simple intervention lowers depression and improves life satisfaction. If your child is old enough, have your child do it and share it with you. It’s certainly cheaper than an anti-depressant, and I can guarantee fewer side effects. And unlike drugs, no one, not even Marty, will make a dime from it.
Please, leave comments! I love a HEALTHY exchange of ideas. After all, critical thinking is essential to life.
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Marc I. Machiz–Contributor
Marc spent his career as an advocate for participants in employee benefit plans, primarily by practicing law. He has three sons with his wife Jean, of 37 years. In semi-retirement, Marc plays tennis, advocates for immigrant rights and has founded a mediation and expert witness business, Justician Mediation, LLC.