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Accentuate the positive

Updated on February 15, 2012

Bad stuff happens

No matter how hard we try to control our lives, no one can prevent bad events from happening. Friends leave us, divorces occur, loved ones get sick and die, hopes remain unrealized, businesses fail, jobs are lost, and homes foreclosed. The current recession in Europe and The United States has left many without hope for the future.

Psychologists advise us to remain positive, to view the glass as half full, to be optimisitic. It is easier said than done when our lives seem to be crumbling around us. In 1944, during World War II, Johnny Mercer penned the lyrics for a song he later recorded titled "Accentuate the Positive." The song lifted spirits and became an immediate hit. It was later recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrew sisters, Kay Kyser, and Artie Shaw. It has been used in movies and TV broadcasts.

"You gotta accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don't mess with Mister in-between. To illustrate my last remark, Jonah in the whale, Noah in the arc. What did they do when everything got so dark? They said you gotta accentuate..."

In 1990, University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Professor Martin E. P. Seligman published "Learned Optimism." Based on over twenty years of research, this groundbreaking guide outlines the defining characteristics of optimism and pessimism. It offers easy-to-follow strategies to overcome negative thoughts and ward off depression. In 2007, Seligman and his co-workers published "The Optimisitc Child," instructung parents and teachers in ways to foster resilience and prevent depression in children. These books and other that followed ushered in a new emphasis opon positive psychology among clinicians, researchers, and educators.

Learning to be helpless

Early laboratory experiments with dogs, using classical conditioning methods, first exposed the animals to mild electric shoclk which they could not avoid or escape. Later these animals were placed into an apparatus in which the shock was signaled by an auditory tone. The animals could escape and later avoid the shock by jumping over the barrier. Ordinarily, dogs quickly learn to avoid further shock by jumping. However, the dogs who initially experienced inescapable shock now did nothing to escape. They lay still and whimpered when the signal was sounded and accepted shock after shock. They had learned to be helpless! While these experiments made it clear that such emotional learning was possible, it did not fully explain how humans, equipped with language, reasoning, and problem-solving skills, learn to be helpless. The learning model was modified to include what people tell themselves when they encounter positive and negative events. These thoughts, which Seligman labeled "explanatory style," account for learned patterns of optimism and pessimism.

Three dimensions of explanatory style

Seligman identified three dimensions by which we attribute cause to positive and negative events. He labeled these: pervasiveness, permanence, and personalization. Pessimists believe bad events are permanent rather than temporary. They attribute global significance to these events, over-generalizing their impact. They internalize responsibilty for what happened ,rather than blaming others or external circumstances beyond their control. On the other hand, if something good happens to them they do the reverse. It was only temporary, of minor significance, and not of their doing. Optimists do just the opposite. They view bad events as minor, temporary and externally caused. They take full responsibility if something good happens to them, viewing it as highly significant and likely to recur.

Two college students receive exactly the same grade on an exam with the same teacher. The first student laments: "This is terrible. Not only did I fail the test, I am going to fail this course for the semester. I don't know why I ever thought that I could succeed in college. I know I'm stupid." The second student tells himself: "O.K., I failed this test but there will be several more exams before the end of the year. Besides, the test was unfair. There were several questions not covered in the book or in class. I know I'm not a failure. I will pull this out.". The first student's belief that he is stupid has all three strikes against it. Stupid is global, personal, and forever. The second student has a positive explanatory style, likely learned long before he entered college.


Learning to be optimistic

Parents, teachers, and other adults may inadvertently teach children to blame themselves for failure, to give up in the face of adversity, and to expect punishment and rejection for their efforts. They learn to become passive, indecisive, and helpless. They begin to view themselves as worthless and inadequate; they are laying the roots for later depression. This is not to imply that parents need to praise and reward every minor accomplishment. Medals and trophies should not be awarded just for showing up. Constructive criticism can be handled by children if done in the right way. Parents and teachers should point out mistakes and offer suggestions for improvement but should be specific and accurate in their criticism. They need to avoid permanent and pervasive messages, focussing on temporary personal causes. They should avoid blaming a child's character or ability. How would you classify these criticisms?: "You are such a bad boy"; You are just not athletic"; "You are just a complete slob." How about these?: You've been crying an awful lot lately"; "You know you didn't study very hard for that test"; "You really are behaving poorly today."

Optimistic styles are passed on from generation to generation. But the cycle can be broken. Learn to examine your thought s when important events occur. If you find yourself always being negative, ask yourself if there is another way of seeing things. Try out a more positive explanation. If you really were at fault, consider what you must do the next time. Optimism,like helplessness, requires practice.

The payoff

Increasingly, we are learning that our physical health is affected by our thinking. Optimists, compared with pessmists, are healther. They acquire fewer infectious diseases. They have better health habits. Their immune systems work better. They live longer. They are more successful in thier jobs. They are happier.

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