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The Happy Cure: Learned Optimism


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Years ago, a young man, who I will call Baruch, came to see me as his parents were concerned about his recent test scores. Privately, his mother told me, “We just don’t know what’s going on. He got two failing grades in a row. He used to do so well in school and now he just can’t seem to get it together. I’m so worried that he will keep failing and then he will be left back. Then, what’s going to happen if he is a year or two older than the other boys when he graduates? People will think that he is not smart and then he will have trouble finding a shidduch!”

In a separate conversation, Baruch’s father told me, “I’m worried about these two tests. His grades have always been good and he has always been very comfortable academically. I know that he is smart. So, why is this happening right now? Do you think there is a problem between him and the teacher? Do you think he might have missed one key concept that is holding him back? I’d really like to get to the bottom of this so that he can go back to doing as well as he always has.”

Needless to say, with a few sessions, Baruch identified the problem and got right back on track. His father breathed a sigh of relief. However, not until her son graduated with honors did his mother consider the crisis averted.

Optimists and Pessimists: A Difference in World View

The parents I described above are a classic example of two very different approaches to life: optimism and pessimism. Dr. Martin Seligman, author of the book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, explains that the essential difference between optimists and pessimists lies in the way they view negative events. He writes:

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…Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

In other words, optimists believe that negative events are temporary and they are not at fault. This often leads to less anxiety about the problem because optimists approach a problem with the attitude, “This too shall pass.” In addition, if they are the cause of the problem, for instance, if they did not study enough for a test and did poorly, they acknowledge the mistake and vow to change their behavior in the future. Most importantly, optimists believe that their fate is in their hands and that they can work to improve their situation. This is clearly evidenced through Baruch’s father: he wanted to find the root of the problem and solve it.

On the other end of the spectrum, pessimists drift through life, unable to recognize that their actions are responsible for the outcome of many situations. They believe that nothing they can do will change the outcome and therefore choose to do nothing. Baruch’s mother chose to bring her son to get him help, but she had already imagined a situation that would negatively affect him years later. She felt powerless to change the circumstances. With some individuals, when taken to an extreme degree, pessimism can result in depression.

Of course, it is easier (and more enjoyable!) to go through life as an optimist. The good news? Dr. Seligman has conducted numerous studies and believes that it is possible to train yourself to become an optimist. He calls this idea, “learned optimism.”

The secret to learned optimism? Dr. Seligman explains that it is as easy as ABCDE:

· A: Adverse event or situation. The first step is learning to identify what situations leave you frustrated or upset. Maybe you can’t handle getting annoyed when you enter your child’s messy bedroom or you dislike when your husband doesn’t thank you for preparing Shabbos. Recognizing the difficult situation is the beginning of seeing it through the lens of an optimist.

· B: Beliefs about that event. Carefully listen to what you tell yourself about those events. Do you say, “Sruli is never going to keep his room clean!” Or, “No one ever appreciates me, no matter what I do!” Make a note of these beliefs so that you are aware of the way you respond to negative circumstances.

· C: Consequences of those beliefs. Once aware of the negative situations and your beliefs, check in and see how those beliefs make you feel. What kind of emotions do those beliefs elicit? Does thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again!” make you feel like there is nothing you can do to change your situation? Record the feelings that accompany those beliefs.

· D: Disputation and distraction. This step is by far the hardest – because it involves changing your thought-process – but it can be done. Once you have identified the emotional consequences of your inner monologue, dispute those beliefs or distract yourself. Disputation might involve challenging the usefulness of the belief. Ask yourself, “Who benefits when I think this way?” If the answer is, “No one,” then that belief is not one worth having. You might also come up with specific external explanations for the event, instead of the explanation you gave yourself. Another option is distracting yourself from your destructive inner monologue and focusing on other more positive thoughts.

· E: Energization. Here come the rewards! This one is the easiest step – you will feel energized after going through steps A-D and will then start reacting to situations in a more positive light. Instead of blaming yourself or feeling hopeless to change the world around you, through your changed inner monologue you will start recognizing that the power to change is in your hands.

The Positive Part of Pessimism

Dr. Seligman makes a strong case for optimism; however, it is important to note that pessimism plays an important role in our lives as well. If we are eternal optimists, we might end up taking unnecessary chances. When there are high–risk, negative consequences to an event, it is a good idea to listen to your inner monologue that says, “This isn’t going to work – it is too risky!”

However, if there is a good chance that you will succeed, don’t hesitate to act. After all, we are always taught that Hashem helps those who help themselves. It is up to you to facilitate the change you want to see in the world!

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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