Friday, May 27, 2011

In Search of a Rosy Scenario

Twenty years ago Martin Seligman shocked many of us with a book called: Learned Optimism.

At a time when most therapists were searching for the meaning of mental distress Seligman declared that depression was a bad mental habit.

People became depressed when they became habituated to pessimistic thinking. Once you are convinced that you are helpless, you are likely to withdraw from the world, the better to feed your bad mental habit.

If you convince yourself that something bad will happen when you cross the street then you are much less likely to cross the street.

Seligman recommended that therapists help their depressed patients to develop better mental habits, especially those associated with an optimistic view of future possibilities.

Retraining your mind is not at all like looking for root causes. If a depressed mind needs to be rehabituated to thinking optimistically, that means that therapists should cease looking at past history.

Even if a trauma triggered the habit of pessimistic thinking, knowing that it did will not change the habit.

This also suggests that when psychoanalysis insists that no important decisions can be made in the present until the patient has fully understood the past, it is saying that the patient is helpless.

No matter your mental state, psychoanalysis is based on the proposition that you are helpless to do anything to change your circumstances. For that, and not merely for that, it should be counted as a mood depressant.

No one is saying that trauma does not influence mood and attitude. If you have been hurt you are likely to be more cautious. You will be less likely to believe in a rosy future.

Once you get into the habit of protecting yourself from bad outcomes, your activities will be constricted and will, almost by definition, be less successful.

If you are induced to focus on your past you will not be working on how to deal with the present or the future.

When it comes to depression, remembering is not your friend.

Overcoming depression means learning to look to the future. If we learn to think that we are going to succeed then we will be more likely to take action. If we are thinking optimistically we will see failure as a learning experience, a step toward future success.

The failure that is part of a pattern of failure is not the same event as the failure that is seen as leading to success.

So explains Tali Sharot in her article, “The Optimism Bias,” excerpted in the new issue of Time Magazine. The article is excerpted from her forthcoming book of the same name. Link here.

Commenting on her own research Sharot writes: “... out brains aren't just stamped by the past. They are constantly being shaped by the future.”

If you had thought that you can understand yourself by looking into your past, you are wrong. When you foreclose all possibility of future action your mind will transform your memories and make them far darker than they would be if you saw them as steps toward the future.

By definition, the future in question is not real; it is imagined, even fictional.

By projecting different futures, we point ourselves toward progress. As Sharot writes: “To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. Optimists in general work longer hours and tend to earn more. Economists at Duke University found that optimists even save more.”

Note well the issue of motivation. Sometimes we are told that we are slaves to the past, that we are merely repeating the past, and that the only way to avoid repeating it is understanding it.

At other times we are told that we are slaves to our darker, irrational impulses and have little in the way of rational choice in how we behave.

Now, Sharot comes along and tells us something that every manager, leader, and coach knows only too well. In order to motivate a group, be it a management team or a football team, you need to present a vision of a better future, a fictional future where success is possible. If you belabor past failures, the better to understand what went wrong, you will have demoralized your team and will have made them less functional.

In Sharot’s words: “Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.”

And also: “To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one's mind. Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is in fact critical to our survival.”

I will leave it to Sharot to regale you with the results of her research into how this all looks to a neurobiologist.

I prefer to examine the cultural factors that tend to push us more toward optimism or pessimism.

Take political leadership. Some politicians, our current president among them, believe that we can only move forward if we exorcise the ghosts of our sordid past. They believe that this cleansing will free us to move toward a better future.

Unfortunately, as our current president seems to have discovered, this is incorrect. If you obsess about your past failures, you will fail to envision a better future, and will be more likely continue to repeat your failures.

The optimism of a Ronald Reagan has proven to be a better motivator than the serial apologies of a Barack Obama.

Our media has found other ways to bring people down. It has fostered a cult to youth.

We worship the young, we adore the young, we all want to get younger, not older.

If you believe that your best days are behind you, that life is an inexorable movement toward decrepitude and death, you are going to become depressed, demoralized, and downright pessimistic.

Our culture values energy, vitality, a face without wrinkles, a toned body where nothing sags, intemperate emotional outbursts, and generally poor behavior.

You might think that Americans are naturally optimistic, but, in fact, many Americans fear the future. They have been conditioned to believe that they are going to get old, become unattractive, have less sex, get sick, and die.

If the future is going to be worse than the present, why not cling to the past. If its all downhill after high school or college, why not live like an overgrown adolescent?

If we were doing an exercise in cognitive psychology, the kind that Martin Seligman and his mentor Aaron Beck prescribe, we would want to start out by making a list of everything that is bad about aging.

Then, we would write another list, of the benefits of aging. We might list increased knowledge, greater wisdom, better social skills, a more temperate disposition, increased authority, enhanced responsibility, greater power, and better social skills.

Do you feel better yet?

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