“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet…Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” — Stephen Hawking, American physicist and author
Difficult life circumstances can contribute to mental illness, making hope of recovery seem unlikely. However, growing evidence shows that positive psychological attributes like optimism are associated with a longer and healthier life.
Optimism can be defined as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes. This positive state of mind allows people in difficult professions to be more resilient when work becomes stressful, and leads to more fulfillment in life. Studies establishing the link between optimism and health beg the question: Is it possible to train ourselves to become optimistic?
Observing Depression in Dogs
For starters, we know that it’s possible for people and animals to learn pessimism. In India, elephant trainers will tie up a baby elephant and let it struggle for days before it learns it is not strong enough to break the rope. This lesson stays with the animal long after it grows into a hulking adult. A fully grown elephant could easily break the rope and escape, but it never tries to do so.
These kinds of observations inspired formal experiments involving dogs who similarly stopped taking action, even when minimal effort on their part could prevent a painful electric shock. Dr. Martin Seligman was researching the causes of depression and pessimism in humans, and he demonstrated that these dogs had been conditioned to believe they had no hope of avoiding the pain they experienced.
There was also some good news from these experiments: to Seligman’s surprise, some dogs were not dismayed so easily. As psychologist Dr. Lynn Johnson explains in his book Enjoy Life! Healing with Happiness, “What we learn from Seligman’s brilliant dog experiments is that suffering is separate from pain. We all feel pain. But how much does that pain bother us? How much must we suffer? It depends entirely on our own resiliency.”
Inspired by his findings, Seligman set out to determine what made some dogs more resilient. While we can only speculate about the inner workings of a dog’s mind, when something bad happens in our own lives, humans seek to explain it. Seligman and other researchers have identified three ways that humans do this: by making assumptions about how long pain will last (permanent/transient), whether we are responsible for it (personal/impersonal), and what areas of our life it affects (pervasive/local).
In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman explains how pessimistic explanations lead to passivity and dejection while optimistic explanations lead to action and increased energy. Just as we can learn to view our stress response as helpful, we can learn to maintain positive emotions amidst negative events. However, it takes work. Seligman suggests looking at the link between our beliefs surrounding an adverse event and what we do in response to these beliefs. He argues that becoming aware of this link is the first step in changing our explanatory style.
Optimism fights depression. Seligman defines optimism as having three core tenants:
- Good stuff lasts (bad stuff doesn’t)
- Good stuff is caused by me (bad stuff just happens)
- Good stuff spreads (bad stuff is isolated)
To practice bringing optimism to the forefront of one’s mind, Seligman recommends his “ABC” journaling exercise. In this exercise, a person records an Adverse event that happened to them, their Beliefs surrounding the event, and the Consequences of their actions based on those beliefs.
You can try this exercise on your own. Whenever something bad happens to you over the next few days, write it down. These may be as small as, “I missed the bus,” or as large as, “My partner broke up with me.” Next, write down your beliefs about the event. Does it affect your life in the long-run? Is it your fault or someone else’s? Does it affect other areas of your life? Seligman says that activities like this can help us recognize our own reflexive feelings (like those of the shocked dogs) and change our actions in turn—hopefully allowing us to break free of ties that have seemed to bind us.
Cummins Behavioral Health Systems aims to inspire hope of recovery and to help those we serve achieve their goals and aspirations. Of course, self-talk is not the end. Problem solving, negotiating, and asserting yourself are also key to fighting depression. It all begins with these kinds of small steps, best attempted with help from a mental health professional.
Or, as Stephen Hawking once put it:
“The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up—there’s a way out.”
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