Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

28 JUNE, 2012

Learned Optimism: Martin Seligman on Happiness, Depression, and the Meaningful Life


What 25 years of research reveal about the cognitive skills of happiness and finding life’s greater purpose.

“The illiterate of the 21st century,” Alvin Toffler famously said, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Our outlook on the world and our daily choices of disposition and behavior are in many ways learned patterns to which Toffler’s insight applies with all the greater urgency — the capacity to “learn, unlearn, and relearn” emotional behaviors and psychological patterns is, indeed, a form of existential literacy.

Last week, Oliver Burkeman’s provocatively titled new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, prompted me to revisit an old favorite by Dr. Martin Seligman, father of the Positive Psychology movement, who was once elected President of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in the organization’s history and under whom I studied in my college days. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (public library), one of these 7 must-read books on optimism, was originally published 20 years ago and remains an indispensable tool for learning the cognitive skills that decades of research have shown to be essential to well-being — an unlearning those that hold us back from authentic happiness.

Seligman begins by identifying the three types of happiness of which our favorite psychology grab-bag term is composed:

‘Happiness’ is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three different forms of it if you can pursue. For the ‘Pleasant Life,’ you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion. For the ‘Engaged Life,’ you identify your highest strengths and talents and recraft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure. For the ‘Meaningful Life,’ you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.

He then defines optimism and pessimism, pointing out the challenge to self-identify as either, and offers a heartening, heavily researched reassurance:

The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.


I have seen that, in tests of hundreds of thousands of people, a surprisingly large number will be found to be deep-dyed pessimists and another large portion will have serious, debilitating tendencies towards pessimism. I have learned that it is not always easy to know if you are a pessimist, and that far more people than realize it are living in this shadow.


A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes…but by learning a new set of cognitive skills. Far from being the creations of boosters or of the popular media, these skills were discovered in the laboratories and clinics of leading psychologists and psychiatrists and then rigorously validated.

Seligman, however, also corroborates what’s perhaps Burkeman’s most central admonition — that the extreme individualism and ambition our society worships has created a culture in which the fear of failure dictates all. As Seligman puts it:

Depression is a disorder of the ‘I,’ failing in your own eyes relative to your goals. In a society in which individualism is becoming rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable.


Teaching children learned optimism before puberty, but late enough in childhood so that they are metacognitive (capable of thinking about thinking), is a fruitful strategy. When the immunized children use these skills to cope with the first rejections of puberty, they get better and better at using these skills. Our analysis shows that the change from pessimism to optimism is at least partly responsible for the prevention of depressive symptoms.

Ultimately, Seligman points to optimism not only as a means to individual well-being, but also as a powerful aid in finding your purpose and contributing to the world:

Optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life was followed by Authentic Happiness and Flourish, which was among best psychology and philosophy books of 2011.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

27 JUNE, 2012

Nora Ephron on Women, Love, Happiness, Reading, Life, and Death


“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

What a tragic year it’s been for literary and creatives heroes, with losses as inconsolable as Maurice Sendak, Ray Bradbury, and Hillman Curtis. Last night, we lost the great Nora Ephron (1941-2012) — prolific and thoughtful filmmaker, novelist, journalist, playwright, essayist, and blogger, a feminist with fierce wit, whom The New York Times describes as being “in the Dorothy Parker mold (only smarter and funnier…).”

Today, let’s take a moment and celebrate Ephron with some of her most memorable insights on women, politics, happiness, love, intellectual life, and death.

On reading, in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (public library):

Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

On money and creative incentive, in My Life as an Heiress:

I was extremely lucky not to have ever inherited real money, because I might not have finished writing ‘When Harry Met Sally…,’ which changed my life.

Addressing young women in her 1996 Wellesley commencement speech, a fine addition to some modern history’s finest graduation addresses:

I want to remind you of the undertow, of the specific gravity. American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and attempt to make it go away.


Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.

On the difference between controversy and political incorrectness, in the January 1976 issue of Esquire:

I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive.

On the evolving metrics of “happiness” for women, in Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (public library):

We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy, and the era when happiness was a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is ‘knowing what your uterus looks like.’

On the joy of being awake to the world, in Heartburn (public library):

I look out the window and I see the lights and the skyline and the people on the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie, and my heart does a little dance.

On the politics of the public encroaching on the private, in her 1996 Wellesley commencement address — remarkably timely, despite the dated references, in light of today’s ongoing debates about publicly-private issues like marriage equality and abortion:

One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged. When Elizabeth Dole pretends that she isn’t serious about her career, that is an attack on you. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.

On love and the capacity for romantic rebirth, in I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman:

Why hadn’t I realized how much of what I thought of as love was simply my own highly developed gift for making lemonade? What failure of imagination had caused me to forget that life was full of other possibilities, including the possibility that eventually I would fall in love again?

On death, in I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections (public library), her final book:

Everybody dies. There’s nothing you can do about it. Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God.

Photo via The LA Times

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

27 JUNE, 2012

America’s Other Audubon: A Victorian Woman’s Radical Journey of Art, Science & Entrepreneurship


The bittersweet story of a young woman and her family, who triumphed through tragedy to bring a passion project to life and change the face of science illustration.

When she was only six years old, Genevieve Jones, known to her friends as Gennie, began accompanying her father Nelson, a medical student and amateur ornithologist, on buggy rides into the wilderness, searching for birds’ nests and collecting eggs to add to their make-shift cabinet of natural history. One spring morning in the 1850s, Gennie found an intricate bird’s nest that neither her father nor Howard, her younger brother, could identify. An inquisitive mind, she set out to find a book that would solve the mystery, only to find that no one had ever written one to help people differentiate the nests and eggs of various birds. What followed was a remarkable story of art, science, and entrepreneurship, full of tragedy and triumph, as the Jones family embarked upon filling that void in natural history, told for the first time in America’s Other Audubon (public library) by former National Endowment for the Arts librarian Joy M. Kiser.

Gennie as a young woman. Howard tipped this photograph into the front of his mother's copy of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio

Gennie had grown up a bright, curious young woman, fascinated with science, gifted in art, and an avid reader, but awkward and shy — unusually tall at nearly 6 feet, with a skin condition that made her appear flushed at all times. Still, she fell in love with a man ten years her senior, whom Kiser describes as “an exceptional musician and literary critic, but, unfortunately…a periodical drunkard.” In 1876, just before Gennie turned thirty, her parents broke off her engagement, concerned about her suitor’s drinking. To console her broken heart, Gennie went away to stay with her best friend Eliza’s parents in Pennsylvania, where she visited the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia and saw some of the hand-colored engravings in Audubon’s now-iconic The Birds of America (1826-38), noting that even Audubon had neglected to include eggs and nests as anything more than a decorative prop.

When she returned home to Circleville, Ohio, Gennie had grown unusually despondent. Her parents became increasingly concerned and, eventually, Nelson encouraged her to pursue her illustrations of nests and eggs, and collect them into a book — an idea he had previously rejected whenever Genie had brought it up, due to astronomical costs of creating a lavishly illustrated book, but was now ready to support it as a much-needed distraction from Genie’s anguish, for which he felt personally responsible.


Progne Purpurea – Purple Martin


Fig. 1. Pandion Haliaetus Carolinensis – Fish Hawk (a.k.a. American Osprey)

Fig. 2. Meleagris Gallopavo Americana – Wild Turkey

Fig. 3. Cathartes Aura – Turkey Buzzard


Melanerpes Erythrocephalus – Red-headed Woodpecker

Family and friends rushed in to support the project and Gennie set out to illustrate the 130 species of birds that nested in Ohio, many common throughout the rest of America. She and Eliza labored over the intricate illustrations, while Nelson devised a business plan to produce 100 copies of the book, to be called Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, and sell them by subscription in approximately 23 parts, charging $5 for the hand-painted version and $2 for the uncolored version. When the first twenty subscribers were secured, including some of the country’s most prominent ornithologists, production began. Kiser describes the astonishingly laborious and scientific process, reminding us of how far we’ve come with design and printing technology:

Gennie and Eliza drew illustrations in wax pencil on both sides of sixty-five-pound lithographic stones. Then Howard placed the stones into crates that were shipped eighty-nine miles to Cincinnati, where [the printing company's] artisans fixed the drawings with a solution of nitric acid, applied ink to the surface of the stones, and printed test proofs to determine the quality of the renderings. When errors were found, the ink was cleaned off and the stones were recrated and shipped back to Circleville for corrections. The first stones made several trips back and forth before the artists conquered the challenges of keeping the points on the wax crayons sharp and the edges of the line drawings crisp.


Quiscalus Purpureus var. Aeneus, Ridgway – Crow Blackbird (a.k.a. Bronzed Grackle)

In 1878, the first three lithographs of part one were finished and sent to ornithological publications for review, earning Gennie’s artwork praise as equal to and even better than Audubon’s. Elliott Coues, a prominent ornithology bulletin editor, wrote:

I had no idea that so sumptuous and elegant a publication was in preparation, and am pleased that what promises to be one of the great illustrated works on North American Ornithology should be prepared by women.


Coccyzus Americanus – Yellow-billed Cuckoo (a.k.a. Rain Crown, Rain Dove)

Once the first batch was mailed in 1879, the overwhelmingly positive response nearly doubled the number of subscribers to 39 — 34 for the hand-colored version and 5 for the uncolored — including former President Rutherford B. Hayes and a young Harvard student by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. But fate threw Genie a cruel curveball — a mere month after the first part was mailed, she contracted typhoid fever and fell violently ill. On her deathbed, she instructed her brother to keep the project alive and enlist the help of their mother in producing the illustrations. She died on Sunday, August 17, 1879, at the age of thirty-two.

In the years that followed, Gennie’s suitor, overcome with sorrow, committed suicide. Her family remained in profound grief and shock, from which their only solace was in bringing Gennie’s vision to life in its full glory. Her mother, Virginia, learned the lithographic technique and began illustrating the eggs and nests Gennie had collected. Kiser writes:

Gennie’s book became the Jones family’s transitional object, a physical entity with which they could distract themselves from their heartache and into which they could invest their passion and energy. Virginia poured all the love she could no longer give to her daughter into illustrating the nests and eggs. Virginia had never drawn or painted anything that required scientific accuracy before…. Despite her grief, she struggled with overcoming her casual artistic style and transformed herself into a scientific observer. Analysis and intellectual rigor were essential, because an artist does not draw what she sees, she draws what she understands.


Empidonax Traillii – Traill's Flycatcher

Soon, Virginia was producing lithographs “every bit as lovely, exacting, and accurate as her daughter’s,” but even so, she couldn’t manage the workload and had to hire three assistants, paid between $1 and $3 for each illustration they painted. The subscription plan of $5 for a single hand-colored part — three illustrations with text — was now significantly short of breaking even. But Virginia and Howard continued to publish the book for two more years, funding it out-of-pocket, until they, too, were struck with typhoid fever. They survived, but Howard suffered heart damage and Virginia’s eyesight was permanently damaged. Still, though he had to give up his medical practice for a year, Howard continued to collect eggs and nests, and Virginia, despite her severe eye pain, continued to illustrate them.


Petrochelidon Lunifrons – Cliff's Swallow

Gennie’s memorial book was finally completed in 1886 and published as a lavish volume bound in full red morocco leather, with a remarkable, first of its kind feat of ornithological illustration inside. But the folio-sized treasure was too expensive for almost anyone to afford and, even though Gennie’s father had spent his entire retirement savings of $25,000 to finance the project, not enough copies of the book were sold to offset the production costs. Virginia became temporarily blind for nearly two years, having strained her eyes so severely to complete the work, and the family was on the brink of poverty — but they never complained:

They both felt thankful that they had the resources to see the project through and considered their collective work on the book the most significant accomplishment of their lives. Nelson never recovered from his daughter’s death. He remained a pension examiner for the United States Army, but he gave up his medical practice and spent much of his time alone in the woods.


Ardea Virescens – Green Heron (a.k.a. Fly-up-the-creek)

After Nelson and Virginia passed away in the early 1900s, Howard locked the doors to the studio where Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio had been produced and they remained sealed for thirty years, until grandson Nelson III, at the age of twelve, was so overcome with curiosity that he sawed the hinges off and broke into the forbidden family temple. Though he was promptly punished, his act prompted Howard to seek a suitable home for his mother’s copy of the family’s masterpiece and it eventually made its way to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where Kiser came upon it as the museum’s librarian.


Icterus Baltimore – Baltimore Oriole

The museum’s copy of the labor of love that nearly drove the Jones family into bankruptcy was eventually appraised at $80,000. But its contribution to the study of ornithology, its feat of exquisite scientific illustration, and its testament to the power of working with true purpose remain priceless.


Fig. 1. Tinnunculus Sparverius – Sparrow Hawk

Fig. 2. Accipiter Cooperi – Cooper's Hawk

Fig. 3. Buteo Lineatus – Red-shouldered Hawk

Fig. 4. Buteo Borealis – Red-tailed Hawk (a.k.a. Hen Hawk)

Smithsonian Curator of Natural-History Rare Books Leslie K. Overstreet writes in the foreword to the book, which falls somewhere between A Glorious Enterprise and Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them:

The creation of a talented young woman and her dedicated family in a small Ohio town far from the intellectual and artistic centers of mid-nineteenth century, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio was a singular and remarkable achievement. It is almost impossible for us today to imagine how ambitious the project was in its own time or how daunting the physical and technological obstacles that had to be dealt with and overcome. Even more, in our modern world of the professionalization of science*, it may seem astonishing that amateurs like the Joneses could produce something scientifically important and lasting.

(*Of course, one could also argue the exact opposite — the Jones family is an early example of today’s explosion of citizen science, from protein folding to whale songs to space exploration, its feats every bit as “scientifically important and lasting” as formal science.)

America’s Other Audubon, an appropriately lavish large-format volume full of Gennie, Virginia, and Eliza’s gorgeous illustrations, captures this extraordinary story of curiosity, creativity, and entrepreneurship with the kind of rigor and passion on par with the Joneses’ own.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.