Learned Optimism

By Jackie Cushman

Published on

Most of us experience ups and downs. Without the downs, we would neither appreciate nor recognize the ups and, without the ups, we would be joyless and listless.

While many believe that each individual has a natural set point for happiness that is not changeable, Dr. Martin Seligman believes differently. The director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania lays out his research, findings and recommendations in his book "Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life" (Vintage Books, 2006).
As a graduate student in experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman studied dogs, and noticed that some would do nothing when they were shocked. Seligman determined that the dogs had felt the "shocks go on and off regardless of whether they struggled or jumped back or barked or they did nothing at all."

Therefore, according to Seligman, the dogs "had concluded or learned, that nothing they did mattered. So why try?"

Most people have faced situations where they too have felt helpless, times when no efforts seemed to make a difference. Eventually, after becoming worn down, they gave up and did nothing.

Seligman references a study done by graduate student Donald Hiroto while completing his dissertation at Oregon State University. This study noted that about 33 percent of test subjects did not learn helplessness, but continued to persevere. The study also noted that about 10 percent of test subjects never tried, or acted helpless from the start.

Applying this study's results to the general population, this translates into 10 percent of the population who never try to overcome obstacles, 57 percent of the population who learn to be helpless in the face of failure and 33 percent who never give up.

The good news is that Seligman hypothesized that if helplessness "could be learned, then it could be unlearned." The benefits of unlearning helplessness would be enormous: continued action, energy, perseverance and results. This ability to unlearn helplessness could potentially benefit 57 percent of the population.

Why is optimism important? "Optimists recover from their momentary helplessness immediately," according to Seligman. "Very soon after failing, they pick themselves up, shrug, and start trying again. For them, defeat is a challenge, a mere setback on the road to inevitable victory. They see defeat as temporary and specific, not pervasive."

Pessimists wallow in defeat, which they see as permanent and pervasive. They become depressed and stay helpless for very long periods," Seligman notes. "A setback is defeat. And a defeat in a battle is the loss of the war."

So how can one unlearn helplessness? "Learned helplessness could be cured by showing the subject his own actions would now work. It could be cured by teaching the subject to think differently about what caused him to fail." Seligman continues, "It could be prevented if, before his experience with helplessness occurred, the subject learned that his actions made a difference. The earlier in life such mastery was learned, the more effective the immunization against helplessness."

Seligman cites three ways of explaining events: Permanence (temporary or permanent), Pervasiveness (specific versus universal), Personalization (internal versus external).

According to Seligman, "it's a matter of ABC: when we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs." And these beliefs have consequences.

"Pessimistic explanations (permanent, universal and internal) set off passivity and dejection, whereas optimistic explanations (temporary, specific and external) energize."

When looking for explanatory evidence regarding an event, instead of thinking of the permanent, pervasive and personal belief, scan for the temporary (or changeable), specific (i.e., related to a specific event rather than an entire life), and the nonpersonal (i.e., the event was not due to you).

Seligman notes that there are two ways to approach pessimistic beliefs: distraction and disputation.

Distraction involves thinking about other things or resolving to think the pessimistic thought later. This provides immediate but not permanent relief.

Disputation disputing one's beliefs is a more effective, long-term approach. What makes disputation work is the acceptance that beliefs are just that, beliefs not necessarily reality. And the recognition that believing something is true does not always make it so.

The approach to disputation is: evidence, alternatives, implications and usefulness. First, the evidence-based approach: is the belief factually correct this often allows beliefs that are extreme and catastrophic (always, never, worst, awful) to be reframed correctly.

While it is not always possible to dispute a belief, because it might be based in reality, you can decatastrophize, and realize the consequences are not as bad as you might have initially thought.

For example, dieters may eat too much at a given meal (the belief is correct), but they need not interpret that to mean they are gluttons who will never lose weight. Instead, they can acknowledge that they overate, but bear in mind that they do not always overeat.

Finally, there is the question of usefulness: a given belief might be correct, but is it useful? If the belief inhibits you from functioning well in a crisis, it might be best to distract the thought until later.

Once the D (disputation) is added to the ABC (action, belief and consequence) the result is E (energy) rather that lethargy. It is energizing to believe that things do get better, that a given event was not about you, but about a specific situation. With this belief, it is easier to pick oneself up and move forward.

Next time you find yourself thinking pessimistically, examine your beliefs and their consequences. Remember, believing something is true does not make it true. Reexamine your beliefs, look towards a brighter future and continue to move forward.

Copyright 2007 by Jackie Cushman

All Rights Reserved

The (not so) Great Debate

By Jackie Cushman

Published on

After reading about the Nov. 28 "CNN/YouTube Republican presidential debate," I decided to watch the video online last night. Normally, I might have contented myself with Colbert's or Stewart's take but the ongoing writers' strike meant I had to trudge through the 2-hour debate myself.

After the welcome by moderator Anderson Cooper, CNN played a video that included snowmen, little green men and animals, both stuffed and real.  Supposedly, the intent of the video was to show what would NOT be allowed during the debate but instead the video appeared to be juvenile, a waste of time.  It also made me wonder if Paula Abdul and Simon were waiting in the wings with comments. I wished for the writers' strike to be over.

After the candidate introductions, CNN played a video from Chris Nandor of Snohomish, Wash. Chris played the guitar and sang a ditty introducing the candidates. While Chris has a fine voice, can play the guitar, and sang entertaining lyrics, his act would have demeaned the debate had it not been for the prior video with snowmen, aliens and animals remember it always matters whom you follow.

The good news is Chris has perfect material to entertain friends with during happy hour around the bar.

Ten minutes and 30 seconds into the debate, the first question was finally asked "yea, actual content, -- about immigration. This led to a round of answers and accusations from Giuliani and Romney and booing from the audience. It was hard to tell if the audience was booing Giuliani for continuing to attempt to make the same point, or from boredom with the answers.

The second questioner asked the candidates to pledge "to veto any immigration bill that involves amnesty for those that have come here illegally." After Thompson and Giuliani answered, McCain offered his perspective on the format of the night's debate, "You know, this whole debate saddens me a little bit, because we do have a serious situation in America. "

I agree. While not bad for a country low on comedic entertainment due to the writers' strike, the debate format did not provide viewers with a serious, grounded framework for determining who ought to lead our nation's government. However, the debate went on, with questions and answers on gun control, imports and abortion.

Giuliani remained tough on crime, Romney remained good-looking and smiling, McCain remained tough on national security.

Thompson appeared to engage just enough to stay on course.

All in all, these candidates performed as expected.

Huckabee gave the best performance, appearing to be the most authentic, relaxed and at ease with himself. Whether his performance can translate into the nomination might be determined by his ability to improve his name recognition. (My spell-check program flags Huckabee as misspelled, but it recognizes Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson.)

In response to Romney's comment that illegal immigrant children, who came into the country with their parents, should not be able to earn merit-based scholarships, Huckabee said, "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We're a better country than that." Clearly, the former governor of Arkansas came with his game on.

Asked about the death penalty, he said, "You know, one of the toughest challenges that I ever faced as a governor was carrying out the death penalty. I did it more than any other governor ever had to do it in my state. As I look on this stage, I'm pretty sure that I'm the only person on this stage that's ever had to actually do it." CNN's Cooper pressed for more. "The question was, from the viewer was? What would Jesus do? Would Jesus support the death penalty?" Proving he was fast on his feet and could maintain a sense of humor, Huckabee answered, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson. That's what Jesus would do."

Giuliani, Romney and Huckabee responded to the question asked by Joseph from Dallas, Texas, which he delivered while holding up the King James version of the Bible. Joseph asked, "Do you believe every word of this book?

Specifically, this book that I am holding in my hand, do you believe this book?"

My interpretation of the candidates answers:

Giuliani: yes and no

Romney: yes but maybe no

Huckabee: yes, but clearly it is allegorical.

McCain continued to project the image of a leader who would be tough of national security, but the former POW also held the line on torture.

Asked about waterboarding, McCain clearly stated he was against it; Romney equivocated, declaring he would not define what "was," and what "was not" torture.

Romney's vagueness left McCain looking tortured. "My friends, this is what America is all about. This is a defining issue and, clearly, we should be able, if we want to be commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America."

Well stated.

According to Cooper, the questions CNN selected for the debate were gleaned from 5,000 submissions. One topic was glaringly missing: health care. Many polls consider it and national security to be the top two issues of the 2008 election among likely voters. Big miss for the content keepers, CNN and YouTube.

The debate ended with a question about baseball, Yankees and Giuliani rooting for the Red Sox. Neither the question nor the answers it evoked offered anything of value other than to serve as a fitting close for a debate that began with a video and a ditty.

Maybe once the writer's strike is over, and comedy is once again reclaimed by Stewart and Colbert, we can begin a push for serious political debates in style of the Lincoln-Douglas debates: 90 minutes, two candidates, all issues and no moderator. Now that would be a great debate.

Copyright 2007 by Jackie Cushman
All Rights Reserved


How to Catch Redfish (and Live LIfe more Fully

By Jackie Cushman


Sea Island, Georgia. -- Normally the sound of the surf can be heard faintly throughout the house on the coast to Georgia. This morning the volume seems to have increased a few decibels. As I look east, towards the sunrise, the ocean appears to be closer to the house than normal.
This higher than normal tide reminds me of a conversation I overheard the day before.

My husband, son and I decided to brave the overcast and rainy Thanksgiving morning weather and joined a boat tour of the marsh area surrounding St. Simons Island. Also on the boat tour was an extended family from the Fort Worth area.

At the time of the tour, the water was about 2 hours before low tide and the high water mark was clearly visible above the water. These marks lead to a discussion about the timing of the tides and the impacts on fishing in the area. One of the gentlemen from Fort Worth was discussing with the captain the upcoming "flood tide," trying to determine the timing and impact of the upcoming higher than-normal morning high tide. The reference to a "flood tide," was one I had never heard before. As I understood their conversation, a flood tide occurs when the high tide is higher than normal, creating a flood in low-lying areas.

Of course, where there is water, there is also the possibility of fish.

This flooding allows redfish to swim into areas that are normally dry, providing them with access to fiddler crabs, which are normally not accessible to them. This opportunity for the fish (access to fiddler crabs) ends up being an opportunity for fishermen (a higher concentration of redfish than normal).

Flood tides occur once a month, with the full moon. If you know when they are going to occur, then you can take advantage of the opportunity and, potentially, catch more fish than normal.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, opportunity is the "favorable juncture of circumstances," or "a good chance for advancement or progress." In this case, the opportunity for the fisherman during a flood tide is the unusually large number of fish in a particular area, leading to the possibility that he will catch more fish than he usually does.

If you are not aware of the flood tide, the opportunity can become a hazard. The boats can travel into the marsh with the tide, but when it recedes, those aboard can be left high and dry, stuck in an area that will not see tide water again for another month.

Once this occurs, they are left with the option of dragging the boat through the mud, back into the water, or leaving the boat until the next flood tide unlodges it.

Serious fishermen, who want to take advantage of the flood tide opportunities as they happen, study the tides and phases of the moon to determine the best possible fishing times. They determine the best locations by talking to other, more experienced fishermen, or by watching the flood tides over time to determine where the water will go. Rather than leaving their fishing to chance, these fishermen attempt to provide themselves with the best opportunity to be successful at fishing.

Fishermen can increase their chances of success by showing up at the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment (including, in this case, a jig, a fishing lure with a lead sinker, hook and soft body covering made to resemble a fiddler crab).

Properly armed with information, equipment, location and timing, the fisherman is more likely to be able to take advantage of the opportunity the flood tide provides. However, ever the best fisherman, ill prepared can squander an opportunity.

Now, here's the hook: Throughout life, opportunities occur. Sometimes, we are able to take advantage of them; other times we do not even recognize they existed until after they are gone. The questions we might ask ourselves include: Are we paying attention to the surrounding landscape? Do we prepare for and then recognize the opportunities so we can take advantage of them while they are here? When opportunities present themselves, do we have all the equipment necessary to take full advantage of them, or will we simply allow ourselves to be swept up, tossed about and then left high and dry?

Copyright 2007 by Jackie Cushman
All Rights Reserved


Please Pass the Turkey and Dressing

By Jackie Cushman

Published on

Since the initial celebration between the pilgrims and the Indians 386 years ago, Thanksgiving has become a day of family gatherings, feasting, football and the last respite before the start of the Christmas shopping season.
We all vaguely know the story: In 1621, the pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Indians to join them in celebration of the fall harvest. The Indians traveled for several days, created their own camp and stayed with the pilgrims for three days of feasting and celebration. This first Thanksgiving sounds similar to our tradition of family members invading the home of others in their family for days on end.

Thanksgiving received official status in 1789, with George Washington's first presidential proclamation, which designated the 26th day of November next, to be set aside for thanksgiving. "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God and to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor," he wrote.

For decades afterward, different states set aside different dates to celebrate Thanksgiving. It took the persistent efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale to get the nation to observe a single day as Thanksgiving.

Hale was born in New Hampshire in 1788. Her brother, Horatio, helped her receive an education by teaching her what he learned at Dartmouth each time he returned home. After he received his diploma, he presented it to Sarah, in recognition of her accomplishment.

At 18, Sarah founded a private school and taught there until she met and married David Hale. While married, she wrote short stories and articles that were published in newspapers. After Hale's sudden death when Sarah was in her late 30s and her failed attempt at making and selling women's hats, Sarah published a book that attracted the attention of the owner of a new women's magazine, Rev. John Blake, who hired her as editor.

Hale wrote poetry and fiction. One of her best known works is the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Hale led a campaign for an official day of thanks to be celebrated throughout the country that spanned nearly 40 years during which she lobbied five presidents and wrote numerous newspaper editorials

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving after the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. After receiving a letter from Hale urging him to set aside a permanent, single, day of thanksgiving, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving.

His proclamation, made during the Civil War, acknowledged "The gracious gifts of the Most High God" and noted that it "seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People." Lincoln invited his fellow citizens to set apart and observe "a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

Thanksgiving has been celebrated as a national holiday since Lincoln's proclamation. While this established a single Thanksgiving Day for our nation, the date on which Thanksgiving Day fell continued to change.

In 1939, in an effort to lengthen the Christmas selling season, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up a week -- to the next to last Thursday of November. This created much confusion regarding which Thursday was the correct day for Thanksgiving. In 1941, President Roosevelt signed legislation making Thanksgiving the 4th Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving is a family holiday, where the emphasis is on fellowship and time rather than gifts, glitz and fancy cocktail parties. The holiday's one constant is time to sit down and eat together. While this might appear to be simplistic and unimportant to some, there is great value in family's gatherings for meals.

A 2006 study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University titled: The Importance of Family Dinners III, notes the importance of family mealtimes in creating the foundation for a healthy family.

The study notes that children who eat dinner with their families five or more times a week are less than half as likely to get drunk once a month (7 percent versus 18 percent ) and almost half as likely to smoke daily (12 percent versus 23 percent) as those who had fewer than three family dinners per week.

According to the study, kids who frequently eat dinner with their families are also likelier to have better grades and confide in their parents, noting that 58 percent of teens report that they have dinner with their families five or more times per week.

Based on this study, it appears as though families with children should continue to eat together throughout the year to help ensure that next year they will have much for which to be thankful.

That same positive impact of coming together to break bread may hold true for the nation too. Coming together to break bread and share time may overcome miscommunication, misunderstanding and misinterpretation. If so, let us gather together, be thankful and, as Lincoln wrote in his proclamation, "fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."

Copyright 2007 by Jackie Cushman
All Rights Reserved

Sunday November 18th Update

I will be on the radio with David Stokes Tonight at 10 P.M. EST on XM Satellite Radio channel 170.

His website is

We will be discussing Thanksgiving.

My latest article, which will be posted here tomorrow can be found at

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