Life isn’t perfect; ergo, blessed be the resilient, for they shall endure. Optimism is a personal psychological freedom. Ask Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Or better yet, ask Metropolitan Life. Met Life revamped its hiring program based on Seligman’s predictors of success. Only optimists need apply.
Seligman began developing his theory about successful attitudes back in the 1960s, after a series of experiments in which rats in a controlled situation were repeatedly subjected to painful and inescapable electric shocks. At first the rats tried to escape the shocks, but after they learned they had no control, they gave up and took the shocks without resistance. They learned helplessness.
When these conditioned rats were then put in a different setting in which they could avoid the shocks, they didn’t even try. They had stopped assessing the situation and acted as if they were helpless, even when they were not.
In a companion study, the element of control was the key: when unconditioned rats were given a warning before the shock occurred, the rats fared better. They were less stressed and rested between shocks. As you might imagine, the group that was allowed to avoid the shock altogether showed the least frustration, aging, and behavior change.
Seligman then asked himself, if animals can learn helplessness, can they learn hopefulness? If so, how much like rats are people in this respect? Seligman, with others, went on to develop cognitive therapy, a process by which insight and self-discovery lead to a reshaping of a person’s attitude. Clinically depressed patients were taught how to look at situations in a different light, identify the control they had over various situations, and reframe their actions and responses.
Depressed people often feel that they have no control over their lives. By learning how to realistically assess the range of options available to them, patients became more resourceful in coping with regular living situations.
Results were seen within three months. The patients’ attitudes improved, their energy level and responsiveness increased, and they started making stronger choices for themselves. Today, cognitive therapy is a mainstay in psychological treatment, although detractors still challenge it, insisting that there must be more to fixing what ails seriously depressed people than guiding them to a more optimistic attitude; however, through their patients, many psychologists join Seligman in routinely demonstrating that, just as people can learn helplessness, they can learn hopefulness.
We can change our minds, as well as our opinions, by changing our perceptions. It requires learning to use the freedom that we do have to affect the atmosphere and content of our lives. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the brightest kind. Pessimists give up; optimists persevere. Their hopeful attitude keeps them in the game, using every play, inning, and sales call as a fresh opportunity to improve the outcome.
Met Life found that optimism also makes a good bottom line. Its earnings grew almost immediately after Seligman’s hiring procedures were initiated. This makes optimism big business. It also suggests that anyone with economic success as a goal might benefit by inspecting his or her underlying attitude about life.
Seligman has observed that optimists don’t get stale because they tend to stay “in the moment.” When they do step out of the present, they step forward toward the future, not into the past with its festering memories and old aches. Someone with hope for the future learns that getting what you want requires action, in addition to reflection or insight, whether it is something tangible, such as meeting a quota or getting a raise, or something intangible, such as happiness or peace of mind.
Making dreams come true or just getting through the day with dignity and satisfaction can happen only by using the present to shape the future. As Peter Drucker once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” John Locke said, “A sound mind in a sound body is a short but complete description of a happy life.”
To make a body sound and keep it that way requires exercise, preferably every day. We deteriorate, both physically and mentally, unless we use ourselves. Stop the effort, and the gains go away rapidly.
Intelligence and emotion are similar. Use them, and they become stronger and more flexible. Optimism naturally flows when both are healthy. Like Seligman’s rats, we will learn passivity and accept life’s shocks without going for the exit – unless we remember that we do have control, at least over our attitude.