Optimism, pessimism and delusion

The believer is happy.
The doubter is wise.
    ==Spanish proverb

Most human beings are more optimistic than the facts warrant.  Many studies show that people regard themselves as more important, more well-regarded, more talented and more virtuous than their friends and loved ones see them.  We think we are like the children in Lake Wobegon, who are all above average.

Martin Seligman, the author of Learned Optimism (1990, 1997) and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Achieve Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (2002), which I read a couple of years ago, thinks this is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Morbidly depressed people on average have a more accurate idea of their life situation than optimists, but they don’t do as well.  Seligman claims it is better to be optimistic and slightly unrealistic than to be pessimistic and clear-sighted.

Martin Seligman is the psychologist who developed the concept of “learned helplessness.”  His experiments showed that dogs or undergraduates who are confronted with problems for which there is no possible solution tend not only to give up, but to fail to respond to future problems.  Through further study, he concluded that the reverse is true.  Success in solving problems gives a sense of mastery that carries over in responding to future problems.

He found that optimism is a major factor in the success of insurance salesmen, West Point plebes, and athletes.  Optimists on average are more successful and pessimists less successful than their level of talent and commitment would lead you to expect, he wrote; optimists on average are less subject to disease, if only because they are more likely to maintain good health habits and follow doctors’ orders.

Pessimists on average are more subject to depression; optimists are more resilient in the fact of adversity.  I would have expected optimists to be more likely to collapse when their illusions are punctured, but Seligman said this is not the case. This is not to say that pessimists can’t be healthy or successful in life, just that the odds favor optimists.

Seligman found that optimism and pessimism come from “explanatory strategies.” Pessimists regard bad things as pervasive, permanent and personal (“this happens with everything, it happens all the time and it’s all my fault”) and good things as particular, temporary and external. Optimists are the reverse.

I was brought up to believe it better to take responsibility for failures and to refrain from boasting of successes.   If Seligman is right, the reverse is true.

People tend to have an inborn “set point” for optimism and pessimism, Seligman wrote; in his experiments, there were some people who never gave up no matter how many times they failed, and others who were defeated by the least little thing.  But it is possible to consciously change your set point, he said.

Seligman told how, while gardening, he snapped at his five-year-old daughter for some minor thing.   The daughter asked him if he had noticed that she hadn’t done so much whining lately.  Seligman acknowledged that she had. She told him that if she could stop whining, he could stop being a grouch.   The point is that it is possible to consciously change your patterns of behavior, whether you’re a young child or middle-aged adult.   Seligman said his own “set point” is mild pessimism (so is mine, I think).   He said he has used his techniques to teach himself and his children optimism.

But since pessimists tend to have a more accurate perception of reality than do optimists, the desired state is not be locked into either optimism or pessimism, but to control your mind so you can shift between optimism and mild pessimism as the situation warrants.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a chapter in her book Bright-Sided debunking Seligman.   His conclusions have no scientific foundation, she wrote; for every study that confirms his ideas, there are others rebutting them.  Seligman is doing well financially as a lecturer, consultant and workshop leader, but she said his claims go beyond his knowledge.  She said she confronted him with her objections in an interview, and he was such a difficult subject that she wondered if he was trying his “learned helplessness” theory on her.  I think there is truth in her objections, but I also think that, taken as a philosophy of life rather than a scientific theory, Seligman’s ideas have merit.

Seligman’s Positive Psychology makes a connection between happiness and virtue.   Seligman said a cross-cultural survey revealed that certain virtues are ubiquitous in all societies.  This is not to say that all cultures, religions and philosophies have the same moral values.  Some value self-assertiveness, others humility; some chastity, others sexuality; some individuality, others conformity; some equality, others hierarchy; some peacefulness, others fierceness; some forgiveness, others vengeance; some tribal loyalty, others universal values, and so on.  But Seligman says that almost all known cultures have some concept of (1) wisdom and knowledge, (2) courage, (3) love and humanity, (4) justice, (5) temperance and (6) spirituality and transcendence.

He and his fellow researchers then developed a list of what they called Signature Strengths, intended to parallel the American Psychological Association’s DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) categories of mental illness, which, according to them, support these universal values.  Just as each person has a “set point” for optimism-pessimism, each person has a set point for the character traits, Seligman wrote.  The goal of Positive Psychology is to help people identify their particular strengths and to build on them.

He identified three levels of happiness: (1) the pleasant life, (2) the good life, which I would call the life of achievement, and (3) the worthwhile life, which I would call the life of service.  The pleasant life is best achieved not by extreme self-indulgence, but by savoring pleasures, as the ancient Epicureans recommended. When you eat ice cream, he said, savor each spoonful and count to 10 after you swallow before eating the next spoonful.

Counting your blessings is an important part of the pleasant life; gratitude is another.   Seligman said one infallible way to make yourself happy is to visit the person to who you owe the most in life, and tell that person of your gratitude.  Even better is to express your thanks in a short essay, have the essay laminated and present it to your benefactor.

The good life is achieved by exercising your signature strengths to achieve difficult but possible goals, resulting in satisfaction and a sense of mastery.  The worthwhile life is achieved by exercising your signature strengths to achieve goals over and above your personal well-being, which adds meaningfulness to satisfaction and mastery.  Helping people personally is much more meaningful and satisfying than giving to charity, he said.

I would say that while the pleasurable life, the good life and the worthwhile life are good in and of themselves, they aren’t necessarily a path to other goals.  You should savor pleasures for their own sake and not because you think this will add to your longevity.  You should exercise your signature strengths for the satisfaction this brings and not because you think it will make you richer, sexier or more successful in your career.  You should devote yourself to serving others only if you care about the others and not as a way of gaining happiness for yourself.   You may or not not achieve any of these secondary goals.  There’s no guarantee.  Or so it seems to me.

Seligman’s books seem to be aimed at well-educated professional people who have achieved their material goals but want something more in life.  They do not seem to have much to say to people who are struggling with illness or economic adversity.  Seligman says attitude rather than circumstances are what matter in life.  That’s why Barbara Ehrenreich lumps him in with the other advocates of positive thinking whose focus on individual psychology draws attention away from the need for social change.

Seligman’s books seem to me to be less science than a rediscovery of age-old philosophical truths, found in works from Aristotle’s Ethics to Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness.  This is not a criticism.  Psychiatry itself is a soft discipline— a mixture of science, intuitive art and the placebo effect.

The finding of Seligman that bothers me the most is his contention that there is tension between correct understanding and positive motivation.  He might be right in some cases.   People who have accomplished difficult things against great odds and obstacles sometimes will say that if they had known at the beginning what they were getting into, they never would have started.   But I don’t think American society at present suffers from excessive realism and focus on facts.  Right now we have too much delusional optimism.

Click on Authentic Happiness for Martin Seligman’s home page.

Click on Eudaomonia: The Good Life for Martin Seligman’s statement of his philosophy.

Click on Mind Reading: Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman on the Good Life for a recent interview with Martin Seligman on his new book  Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well Being (which I haven’t read).

Click on Beyond Authentic Happiness: 10 Reasons to Doubt Seligman for a critique by Tim LeBon, a British psychotherapist and life coach.

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One Response to “Optimism, pessimism and delusion”

  1. Overdiagnosis | notconventional Says:

    […] us happy. Even if we aren’t actually that powerful. In fact we often aren’t – optimists are usually delusional. But at least they’re […]


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