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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.

BP

7 Essential Books on Optimism

What the love of honey has to do with ancient wisdom, our capacity for hope, and the future of technology.

Every once in a while, we all get burned out. Sometimes, charred. And while a healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism may help us get by, it’s in those times that we need nothing more than to embrace life’s promise of positivity with open arms. Here are seven wonderful books that help do just that with an arsenal ranging from the light visceral stimulation of optimistic design to the serious neuroscience findings about our proclivity for the positive.

THE LITTLE PRINCE

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, one of our mustread children’s books with philosophy for grown-ups, is among the most poetic and hopeful reflections on human existence ever penned. Lyrical, charmingly written and beautifully illustrated, it sweeps you into a whirlwind of childhood imagination to peel away at the deepest truths about the world and our place in it.

Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Published in 1943, translated into 180 languages since and adapted to just about every medium, Exupéry’s famous novella is one of the best-selling books of all time. More importantly, it’s one of the most important handbooks to being a thoughtful, introspective and, yes, hopeful human being.

LEARNED OPTIMISM

Martin Seligman is a Brain Pickings regular — known for his research on learned helplessness and revered as the father of positive psychology, his Authentic Happiness is one of the 7 most essential books on the art and science of happiness, and his Flourish made our 2011 Summer Reading List. But his second book, originally published over 20 years ago, remains one of his most influential. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life does away with the usual cliches of the self-help genre to deliver a clinical researcher’s crisp prescription for developing the cognitive skills necessary for transcending pessimism, which Seligman argues is fully escapable.

As you read this book, you will see that there is an epidemic of depression among young adults and among children in the United States today. [Depression] is not just about mental suffering; it is also about lowered productivity and worsened physical health. If this epidemic continues, I believe America’s place in the world will be in jeopardy. America will lose its economic place to less pessimistic nations than ours, and this pessimism will sap out our will to bring about social justice in our own country.” ~ Martin Seligman, 1990

From a fascinating background on the study and psychology of optimism to hands-on tests you (and your child) can do at home to tangible metrics for your progress, the book is a powerful blueprint for reforming your deepest pessimistic tendencies, whether you consider them mild, moderate or profoundly severe.

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK

In a world brimming with cynicism, it’s a rare and wonderful occasion to find an oasis of sincerity and optimism. That’s exactly what you’ll find in Everything Is Going To Be OK — a delightful pocket-sized anthology of positive artwork from a diverse lineup of independent and emerging artists, designers and illustrators, including Brain Pickings favorites Marian Bantjes, Marc Johns and Mike Perry. The project is an invitation to look at existential truisms with new eyes in a context of honesty and simplicity, delivered through such outstanding graphic design that the medium itself becomes part of the charm of the message.

Reviewed in full, with more images, here.

THE OPTIMISM BIAS

The reason pessimism is easily escapable, as Martin Seligman posits, might just be that its opposite is our natural pre-wired inclination. At least that’s the argument British neuroscientist Tali Sharot makes in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain — a fascinating yet accessible exploration of how and why our brains construct a positive outlook on life even in the direst of circumstances.

Sharot has been studying “flashbulb memories” — recollections with sharp-edged, picturelike qualities, usually about unexpected arousing or traumatic events — since the 9/11 attack, investigating why the brain tends to “Photoshop” these images, adding contrast, enhancing resolution, inserting and deleting details. This phenomenon led her to probe deeper into the neural system responsible for recollecting these episodes from our past — a system that, contrary to previous belief, hadn’t evolved just for memory but to also imagine the future. These shared neural networks gleaned insight into how the brain generates hope, why we’re able to move forward after trauma, and what makes the brains of optimists different from those of pessimists.

In this book, I argue that humans do not hold a positivity bias on account of having read too many self-help books. Rather, optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into our most complex organ, the brain.” ~Tali Sharot

AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR OF THE FUTURE

After life threw comedian Mark Stevenson a curveball that made him face his own mortality, he spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, looking for an antidote to the dystopian visions for the technology-driven future of humanity so pervasive in today’s culture. He synthesized these fascinating insights in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?” — an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to cancer research, Stevenson explores the most cutting-edge ideas in science and technology from around the world, the important ethical and philosophical questions they raise and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of these different ideas and disciplines.

This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future comes as an auspicious yet grounded vision for what we’ve previously explored in discussing the future of the Internet and what the web is doing to our brains.

Full review here.

LIVE NOW

When illustrator Eric Smith was diagnosed with three different types of cancer, he decided to start a collaborative art project inviting people to live in the moment through beautiful, poetic, earnest artwork that celebrates life. This season, the project was published as a book, the candidly titled Live Now: Artful Messages of Hope, Happiness & Healing — an absolute treasure of Carpe Diem gold, also part of our 2011 Summer Reading List, full of stunning illustration and design reminding us of the simple joys available to us, should we choose to turn a deaf ear to our chronic cynicism.

‘Live Humbly’ by Mikey Burton
‘Break Your Routine’ by Mikey Burton
‘Overflowing Optimism’ by Chad Kouri

Cancer changed the way I ate, slept, and most importantly the way I live. Before cancer I was like most folks, just cruising along. It was during my treatment, when starting to discover what cancer could give to me — the ability to absorb every moment as if each one were my whole life.” ~ Eric Smith

Our full review, with more images, here.

THE TAO OF POOH

More than a universally beloved children’s classic, Winnie-the-Pooh is also of the most essential children’s books brimming with wisdom for adults. In 1982, Benjamin Hoff synthesized that wisdom with a spin, drawing an allegorical parallel between A. A. Milne’s classic and the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. The Tao of Pooh uses Pooh and his friends to explain the basic principles of Taoism: compassion, moderation and humility. Simple, delightful and wonderfully written, it remains a timeless invitation to a life of quiet happiness, even amidst the relentlessly demanding reality and superficial preoccupations of Western culture.

‘What’s this you’re writing?’ asked Pooh, climbing onto the writing table

‘The Tao of Pooh,’ I replied.

The how of Pooh?’ asked Pooh, smudging one of the words I had just written.

‘The Tao of Pooh,’ I replied, poking his paw away with my pencil.

‘It seems more like the ow! of Pooh,’ said Pooh, rubbing his paw.

‘Well, it’s not,’ I replied huffily.

‘What’s it about?’ asked Pooh, leaning forward and smearing another word.

‘It’s about how to stay happy and calm under all circumstances,’ I yelled.

‘Have you read it?’ asked Pooh.

Hoff followed up with The Te of Piglet ten years later, a companion book exploring the Chinese concept of Te, often translated as ‘virtue,’ ‘integrity’ or ‘inner power.’

Craving more? Carry on with these 7 must-read books on the art and science of happiness.

BP

Gardening as Resistance: Notes on Building Paradise

“Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil.”

“The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… Here is the Amen beyond the prayer,” Derek Jarman wrote as he grieved his dying friends, faced his own death, and contemplated art, mortality, and resistance while planting a garden between an old lighthouse and a new nuclear plant on a barren shingled shore.

Jarman is one of the artists whom Olivia Laing profiles and celebrates in Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library) — her superb collection of meditations on art, activism, and our search for meaning, drawing on the lives of artists whose vision has changed the way we see the world, ourselves, and others.

Red poppy from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Laing’s Jarman-fomented essay, titled “Paradise,” begins with the question of whether gardening is a form of art and ends with the question of whether art is a form of resistance — a necessary tool for building the Garden of Eden we imagine a flourishing society to be.

She writes:

Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.

To bridge Laing’s two questions, one must somehow reconcile these two temporal models: linear time, which the Greek called chronos and along which we plot the vector of progress, and cyclical time, or kairos, which is the time of gardens and, Laing intimates, the time of societies. We long for the assurance of steady progression, yet all around us the rest of nature churns in cycles. How do the cicadas know when to awake from their seventeen-year slumbers and rise up by the billions to make new life that will in turn repeat the cycle? And the migratory birds, “how can they know that it’s time to go?,” as Nina Simone asked in her serenade to time — Nina Simone, who also chose to cover Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” and who gave all she had to a movement the central concerns of which have returned a life-season later with redoubled urgency, its fruits only just beginning to ripen in our lifetime.

Therein lies the paradox — how do we practice resistance if time is the substance we are made of, as Borges so timelessly observed, and yet we live suspended between these two parallel versions of time as we try to build paradise?

Fig from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

“Resistance” has always been a funny word to me — one without direct translation in my native Bulgarian, in this particular context of constructive social change. It contours something necessary but not sufficient — while ennobling and empowering in its implication of defying wrongness, it limits its own power by ending at what is to be eradicated, without indication of what is to be grown in its place and how. In this respect, the resistance approach to human nature (and the consensual collective byproduct of human natures we call society) is like the pesticide approach to nature.

“Resistance” is a word especially limited by the elemental fact that there are certain things simply beyond the reach of resistance, impervious to our passions and protestations — spacetime, gravity, the fundamental laws that gave rise to our existence and will eventually return us to the stardust of which we are made. Your face will sag and your spine will bend under the twin assault of gravity and time, and so will mine, until our atoms disband altogether to become food for the worm and fertilizer for the mycelial wonderland from which bluebells will rise some future spring.

None of this we can resist.

But maybe — and that is what redeems and consecrates our finite human lives and our limited powers — within those parameters, there is space enough and spirit enough to resist what is poisonous to the ideological soil we call culture and persist in planting, for as long as we have to live and with as much generosity as we have to give, something lush and beautiful. That we might never live to see it bloom might just be okay. To have planted the seeds is satisfaction enough worth living for.

Hare-bell from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

Laing lands in a kindred place. A century and a half after Thoreau contemplated the long cycles of social change and an increment after Zadie Smith reminded us that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Laing writes after a pilgrimage to Derek Jarman’s grave:

Is art resistance? Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil. But it seems to me that whatever else you do, it’s worth tending to paradise, however you define it and wherever it arises.

The arc of the moral universe might not be so different from that of the stem bent with bluebells tolling their vernal reminder that change comes in cycles. Every arc, after all, is but a segment of a circle. What it takes to draw our share of it with a steady hand as we try “widening our circles of compassion” without the assurance of immediate results — that is the question we each answer with our lives.

Poet and gardener Ross Gay comes closest to my own answer in his life-tested conviction that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” As I roll in my palm six large seedpods of sea kale — a neglected flowering wonder I discovered on the pages of Derek Jarman’s journal — and thumb them into the moist Brooklyn soil where they may or may not sprout, I find more and more that attention is the elemental unit of time. Each moment we are fully paying attention is an atom of eternity. The quality of our attention measures the quantity of our aliveness — our sole generator of resistance and persistence.

This I know to be true: What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.

Sea kale (Crambe maritima) by Carl Axel Mangus Lindman, 1901. (Restored archival art, available as a print benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks on the healing power of gardens, then revisit Laing on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.

BP

Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.”

Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“In forty years of medical practice,” the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients…: music and gardens.”

Virginia Woolf, savaged by depression throughout and out of her life, arrived at her buoyant epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking in her garden.

“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process.

“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her scientific-poetic serenade to gardening.

But if modern gardening has a patron saint, it must be the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994).

Derek Jarman

In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, Jarman left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.

At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)

Red poppy from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction.

The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.

On the last day of February, after planting lavender in a circle of stones he collected from the beach under the clear blue sky, he writes:

Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.

It is a different garden of Eden he is building on these windblown shores, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, too bedeviled by millennia of religion-fomented homophobia. Gardening becomes not only his salvation, but his act of resistance:

Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.

Honeysuckle from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

Acutely aware that he could finish any moment, that he could be the next to go, Jarman turns his garden into processing ground for grief — a personal grief, a cultural grief, a civilizational grief:

The wind calls my name, Prophesy!

[…]

Time is scattered, the past and the future, the future past and present. Whole lives are erased from the book by the great dictator, the screech of the pen across the page, your name, Prophesy, your name!

But the ultimate gift of gardening is the way it concentrates and consecrates time, grounding the gardener in a present both conscious of and undistracted by the ongoing cycles of seasonality stretching across all past and all future.

Iris by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening, evocative of poet Ross Gay’s lovely sentiment that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” He writes:

The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.

I am reminded of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s insight about film, Jarman’s primary creative medium — that its raw material and its gift to the viewer is time: “time lost or spent or not yet had.” I am reminded, too, of Seneca, writing two millennia earlier about mastering the existential math of time spent, saved, and wasted — I have found few that better clarify the difference between the three than the quiet lessons of gardening.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

In the garden, Jarman discovers — or rather befriends — the most disquieting byproduct of time: boredom. Half a century after his Nobel-winning compatriot Bertrand Russell placed a capacity for boredom and “fruitful monotony” at the heart of human flourishing, Jarman contemplates his new cottage life away from London’s familiar “traps of notoriety and expectation, of collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune,” and writes:

I have re-discovered my boredom here… where I can fight “what next” with nothing.

His boredom, like all of our boredom, becomes a laboratory for presence — a nursery in which to grow the capacity for paying attention, a studio in which to master the vital art of noticing, out of which our contact with beauty and gladness arises — the wellspring of all that makes life livable. In an entry from the last day of March, Jarman shines the beam of his garden-honed attention directly at the poetics of reality:

Sun a pure white globe in a chalky sky, mist blowing across the Ness in milky veils, silent pussy willow woods the palest pastel yellow luminous in the silvery light.

Hare-bell from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

He finds again and again that the attention of presence and the attention of remembrance are one:

My garden is a memorial, each circular bed a dial and a true lover’s knot — planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina.

And so this living temple of the present becomes a memorial of the future past and a monument to conservation. In one of the short poems punctuating his journal, penned as he records news of a government summit on global warming, Jarman addresses a visitor from the barely recognizable future:

to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
no longer remembered as earth
may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
perform an archeology of soul
on these precious fragments
all that remains of our vanished days
here — at the sea’s edge
I have planted a stony garden
dragon tooth dolmen spring up
to defend the porch
steadfast warriors

Complement Modern Nature — which I discovered through Olivia Laing’s magnificent essays on art, artists, and the human spirit — with Debbie Millman’s illustrated love letter to gardening and poet-gardener Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in willful gladness.

BP

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