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Friday, July 13, 2007


The other day I was reading Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism. He argues that optimism can be learned, and that it helps us to weather disappointments, illness, and can even prevent depression and anxiety. This doesn’t mean we should just repeat baseless affirmations to ourselves, however. He says true optimism is shown in how we interpret disappointing or difficult events. Do we blame ourselves, citing something unchangeable like luck or our lack of talent? Or do we identify factors that we could affect in the future? For example, instead of saying, “I failed the test because I’m stupid, or because the teacher is unfair,” an optimist will say, “I failed the test because I didn’t study. Last time when I studied I did well, so for the next text I just need to work harder.” He acknowledges that there could be some truth in several different explanations of our problem (maybe the teacher is unfair), but focusing on the one we can do something about is more likely to get us a different outcome the next time.

Just after I read this I received some disappointing news, so I got the chance to practice Seligman’s approach. Of the possible explanations, I could blame myself, blame someone else, or focus on how I could get a better outcome next time. Then there were the mystical explanations: God has something better in store for me; or God is trying to teach me something through this. I find that both of those hold true for most disappointments, and they are not incompatible with looking for something constructive to do next. I was just starting to mull all this over when I ran into a mother I know from baseball and told her my frustration. She had a completely different explanation: “Mercury was in retrograde!” she said, as if that cleared up everything. The funny thing was that her explanation really cheered me up, even though I don’t believe in astrology. It was somehow heartening to think that a) it wasn’t my fault, b) I didn’t need to learn anything, and c) it was a temporary set back (since Mercury is no longer in retrograde, whatever that means).

Just in case the movements of the planets don’t solve my problems, I’m still figuring out what I’m supposed to be learning. As I was writing this, a good friend came into the coffee shop where I’m writing and told me something she read recently about contemplative practice. The gist of it was that when something comes at you in life, you can either brace yourself, or you can open up to it and surrender. The author said that when you brace, you end up in your smaller self, a phrase my friend really related to. When you surrender, however, you are more in your centered self, more expansive and better able to deal with things. The trick, we both agreed, is in knowing what being your centered self looks like in terms of the practical daily choices. When I finish writing this blog entry, what do I do next? Surrender could mean going home and taking a nap, though in my case, I don’t believe surrender requires giving up. This is, of course, all fodder for my writing, which is another explanation for why I needed this lesson.


Anonymous HtCwP said...

A recent NYTimes magazine article on happiness, which mentions Seligman (yeah, Philly!) and others' work on happiness, lists things like this to increase happiness: optimism, gratitude, forgiveness, etc.

For your readers who're interested, I did a review of the article on my blog, ... interesting reading.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks, HtCwP (which I discovered stands for How to Cope with Pain).

9:50 PM  

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