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"How to Change Your Mind and Your Life"
BOOK REVIEW: Learned Optimism, by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.
-- Jeff, Sunday 11-08-2009, 4:15 pm CST --


bookcover of Learned Optimism In medical research, there are three kinds of evidence that are considered to determine the effectiveness of a particular treatment. The least valuable is anecdotal evidence. More valuable, is clinical evidence. But only a treatment that has been proven by controlled studies can be said to have been proven scientifically.

Anecdotal evidence would be evidence along the lines of, "My sister-in-law said that her Aunt Gertrude drank Mr. Fletcher's Real Crabgrass Tea for two weeks and the wart fell off her nose." Clinical evidence would be reports by physicians about how often warts fall off the noses of patients who are known to drink Mr. Fletcher's tea, whether on their own initiative or by the doctor's recommendation. But controlled studies must involve double-blind experiments -- which any researcher who cares to can verify independently -- of the effect that crabgrass tea has on making nose warts fall off.

It was eye opening some years ago to discover a book by Martin E. P. Seligman, who is the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, called Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. In it I discovered that the Biblical principles of the renewed mind -- which I was introduced to in Dr. Victor Paul Wierwille's "Power for Abundant Living" class and learned more in-depth in Rev. Walter Cummins' "Renewed Mind" class -- have been proven in controlled studies using double-blind experiments involving people suffering from or at risk of psychological depression.

As a matter of fact, in the class I teach on the subject, "The Renewed Mind: Principles, Keys and Skills," next to the Bible, Learned Optimism is the textbook.

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How do we explain to ourselves the adversities that we face in life? How do we explain to ourselves the good things that happen? Prof. Seligman has based his career in cognitive psychology on studying these two questions.

Categorizing what he calls people's "explanatory styles" about both adversities and blessings along a scale as either "optimistic" or "pessimistic," his research has shown that the more optimistic a person's explanatory style, the more resilient that person is in bad times and the more capable he or she is to build upon the good.

The test for clinical depression, which the book invites the reader to take to identify his or her own explanatory style, measures the tendency for optimism or pessimism along three lines: the pervasive, the permanent, and the personal.

For instance, if I explain a good event, like landing a job, as something that is going to make my whole life better (pervasive), and as evidence that sooner or later I always succeed (permanent), and due to my skills and inherent worth as a person (personal), I am an optimist.

On the other hand, if I explain a bad event, like losing a job, as something that is going to ruin my whole life (pervasive), as evidence that sooner or later something always messes up my life (permanent), and due to my ineptness and inherent lack of worth as a person (personal), I am a pessimist who is in danger of suffering from psychological depression.

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Optimistic Child bookcover Early in the book, Prof. Seligman points out that currently in the United States we are facing an epidemic of psychological depression whose roots can be traced back to pessimism:
For the first time in history ... large numbers of people are able to have a significant measure of choice and therefore of personal control over their lives. Not the least of these choices concerns our own habits of thinking. By and large, people have welcomed that control. We belong to a society that grants to its individual members powers they have never had before, a society that takes individuals' pleasures and pains very seriously, that exalts the self and deems personal fulfillment a legitimate goal, an almost sacred right...

With these freedoms have come perils. For the age of the self is also the age of that phenomenon so closely linked to pessimism: depression, the ultimate expression of pessimism. We are in the middle of an epidemic of depression, one with consequences that, through suicide, takes as many lives as the AIDS epidemic and is more widespread. Severe depression is ten times more prevalent today than it was fifty years ago. It assaults women twice as often as men, and it now strikes a full decade earlier in life on average than it did a generation ago. (pp. 9-10)

Gladly for anyone who would like to acquire a more optimistic approach toward life, and thereby be less prone to psychological depression, Seligman's research has also shown that the explanatory styles that human beings adopt are not set in stone. We can change our outlook by changing our thinking.

He and other researchers have proven the positive results that come from "a change in explanatory style" -- what Romans 12:2 calls "the renewing," or in the Greek, "the newing-up" of the mind -- in controlled studies involving clinical depression. Studies which you can read about in Learned Optimism and in his subsequent book The Optimistic Child -- which, by the way, is an excellent resource for learning how to instill optimism in children.

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Changing our explanatory style from pessimistic to optimistic requires effort. It is not a matter of applying the ancient Greek aphorism to "know thyself", so much as it is of observing how we react to adversity, and then redirecting our thinking along more optimistic lines.

As Prof. Seligman observes in Learned Optimism, it's as simple as A-B-C. We face A) an Adversity, such as the loss of a job. Which will B) spur us to think and act according to our Pessimistic Beliefs that the loss will ruin our whole lives, is the kind of thing that always happens to us, and is due to being inept and worthless. Which will in turn produce C) Consequences.

Graduates of the "Power for Abundant Living" and "Renewed Mind" classes, of course, will recognize instantly how to short-circuit this kind of runaway train before it goes off the cliff into negative consequences. We MUST interrupt our "stinking thinking." How? By "thinking about what we are thinking about" and choosing to think what is true instead.

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In other words, "To Change Our Minds and Our Lives," we must ARGUE WITH OUR PESSIMISTIC BELIEFS.

First of all we can argue the facts. Who says that a job loss will ruin our whole lives? Is a mere job the whole of life? Furthermore, good things happen to us in a lot more abundance than bad things do. For one thing, the sun never fails to rise every morning. And the effects of the good things last longer too. It doesn't take us much effort, as a matter of fact, to sit down and list twenty things that we have to be thankful for. And finally, it doesn't take much added effort to recount twenty things that we are good at, personally. Furthermore, as our bathroom mirrors testify every morning, we are all VERY good looking... "BEHOLD, THE GLORY OF THE LORD!"... grin emoticon

Secondly we can argue the Word of God. Which over and above mere facts, is superior in every way because it presents GOD'S UNALTERABLE TRUTH. The Scriptures wherein, I believe, resides the most optimistic statement ever uttered on the face of the earth in any language:

Philippians 4:13
I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.
"I can," me personally. I OWN the INHERENT natural and spiritual ability. To "do all things" pervasively, regarding ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that pertains my life. "Through Christ," who not only lives inside of me, but who is my "hope of glory," for through him God has given me ETERNAL LIFE permanently.1

"The renewed mind is the key to power," indeed. For the truth of the Word of God unleashes in our lives the benefits, not just of optimism, but of the power of God.

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1. Colossians and I John say:
Colossians 1:27
To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:
I John 5:11
And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.

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