Spoiler alert: Did you know that being positive isn’t necessarily the same as being optimistic? Did you know that your methods for coping with stress might be hurting your health, even if they make you feel better?
There was an entire revolution in psychological treatment called “Positive Psychology” which began after the book Learned Optimism changed everything in the ’90’s. Before that, psychological practices were geared toward treating severe functional mental illnesses.
The author of the breakthrough book, Martin Seligman, asked the question, why aren’t people fulfilled and thriving when we know more about human behavior than ever before? Because he challenged the field of behavioral sciences, an entire branch of psychology became dedicated to helping (otherwise “normally” functioning) people become their best selves.
In his book, Learned Optimism, he discusses the surprising spike in depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug addiction when we live in a happiness-driven society. He believes it is much more than simply public awareness of mental health driving the rise in diagnoses.
In his book, he explains that children were once taught how to overcome obstacles and persevere, but the focus in education has instead shidted to boosting self-confidence regardless of the effort. He theorized that the self esteem movement, which was standardized in classrooms around the country during the 80’s and 90’s, played a major role in changing the way early childhood minds develop and learn coping strategies.
One point that I found particularly interesting is that he proposes individuals of prior generations (ie. 1950’s, 1960’s, etc.) were raised to believe they were always surrounded by an invisible support system. Today, that sense of strong community doesn’t exist for most young people.
In the past, people realized that their support system shared responsibility for every success, failure, and contributed overall to the person they became. Because there was an awareness that outside forces had a hand in their lives, when their hard work did pay off, they were happy to share their triumphs and celebrate with their circle of support. Likewise, when their attempts failed, they wouldn’t fall too far or stay down too long as they had a safety net of people ready to pick them up and get them back on their feet. Just as the successes were shared, the devastation of each loss fell not only on one person’s shoulders, but they shared it with their community.
In the past, community looked quite different than our version of today which, for most people, consists of aloof friends we selectively share information and photos with on social media.
Americans once valued country, faith in government, patriotism, even the President. People were raised connected to a personal faith; organized religion provided another strong support structure of people they viewed as their second family. They were inclined to make life long connections inside of their schools and residential areas where they were urged to be active citizens. Above all, the nuclear family was once the cornerstone of society.
Just the sheer idea that others believe in you can be the difference between a devastating pitfall that derails your life and a curve ball which you can bounce back from. Today, most don’t grow up ingrained with the same surrounding support system, lasting personal connections, or strong faith in God and country.
Learning about these changes in our community structure helped me understand how we see the world so differently, and why we might be developing such vastly different coping and social habits from our parents and grandparents.
We are independent. Our successes are our own to take pride in and celebrate. We are taught to have faith in ourselves. There is great emphasis on self-determination, and we’re allowed to reap our own rewards when we succeed. But on the downside, our tools for coping with inevitable life failures and day to day stresses may unfortunately be lacking. We are taught that personal responsibility and success are absolutely everything, but when we fail (as we all do), the personal fallout can be emotionally and psychologically devastating…even traumatizing.
I was already working on my Learned Optimism piece when I happened to read an article on Resilience, and was surprised to find that the number one quality suggested in becoming more resilient is to create the same types of communal support that past generations grew up with (as Martin Seligman wrote about).
Surrounding yourself with close connections, friends, family members, becoming more connected to faith, plugging into community, and making permanent, lasting relationships with “people who affirm you, recognize your strengths, natural, innate abilities, and provide the support and acceptance you need” will increase your resilience [Mary J. Yerkes].
Other ways to become more resilient: accept “good enough” instead of perfection, focus on what you can control, find deeper meaning in life, accept advice from your loved ones, take care of yourself, ask for/accept help, don’t be surprised when life changes suddenly, have faith that things will eventually get better, set goals you can achieve, laugh.
Being resilient isn’t about silencing yourself through turmoil or ignoring your emotions, but resiliency is a method of utilizing multiple positive coping strategies along with a mindset that is always ready to “roll with the punches.”
Martin Selgman writes, “If we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that failure is our fault, it will undermine everything we do.” Pessimists feel personally responsible in all success and failure, and helpless to make changes. This thinking leads to tendencies for depression and anxiety. Chronic pessimists are also more likely to have health troubles later in life.
Does this mean that society’s focus on self-reliance and self esteem could be creating generations of pessimists? I don’t know if that’s true, but it would be very ironic in our happiness-driven, positivity-focused culture!
The good news is, both Resilience and Optimism can be learned!