How we respond to adversity, both mentally and physically, significantly impacts us and is often what defines our path. As parents, every day is a new lesson in what can go right (or wrong) when facing challenges. How we pick ourselves back up when adversity knocks us down and summon the courage and energy to do it all over again tomorrow will define our journeys. But many people simply repeat the same habits over and over again without much awareness and failure is oftentimes considered something to abscond from, something to avoid at all costs. But according to researcher and author Martin Seligman, it’s something we can learn to overcome.
What is Learned Optimism?
Like emotional intelligence, learned optimism is a method for developing psychological skills that improve one’s quality of life. In this case, that skill is the ability to be optimistic, to see the world with a more positive outlook. The process for developing learned optimism revolves heavily around limiting negative self-talk and prioritizing optimistic thoughts over pessimistic ones.
What is truly fascinating about positive outlook is its ability to not only improve mental health, as one would infer, but also its ability to improve physical health. Physiologically, research has shown optimism to come into play in a few ways. Patients with a more positive outlook report lower levels of duress associated with difficult medical treatments, greater awareness of their health status, and a more approach-focused method for seeking treatment. On top of that, optimists are less likely to develop high blood pressure, suffer immunity lapses due to stress, and develop heart disease. It’s amazing what a difference in perspective can do for someone, but developing that optimism is not as easy as it sounds.
Learned Optimism and Parenting
A lot of different factors go into whether or not someone is optimistic. Not only is optimism partially hereditary, but it is also influenced by childhood experiences like parental warmth and financial stability. Many pessimists are formed by events out of their control or by traumas inflicted upon them. But Seligman’s work should encourage, not daunt, the pessimists out there because it treats optimism as just another skill that you can improve on if you choose to.
For parents, Seligman’s work should be particularly noteworthy because in his research, he concludes that the optimal time for influencing optimism is during the developmental years. Once a child has the ability to recognize their own thoughts and emotions, but before puberty, this is the best time to start learning and practicing optimism.
For parents looking to inspire a more positive outlook within their children, there are several options for where to start. Seligman’s method is structured into what he calls the “ABCDE Model.” This stands for A: Adversity, B: Belief, C: Consequence, D: Disputation, and E: Energization. But what do these all mean and how can parents implement them into their lives?
The A B C D E Model
Adversity: The situation that calls for a response
What is troubling you as a parent? What have you recognized as challenging and hope to improve? No problem is too small or too large; it can be anything from wanting to spend more time playing with your children to figuring out the best way to deal with the consequences of a divorce. We wake up to new challenges every day so figuring out which ones to prioritize is a major first step.
Belief: How we interpret the event
Belief is a vital part of this model and relies on your ability to accurately recognize your own internal process for dealing with adversity. How did you feel about the situation? Was it a positive or negative feeling? By framing these thoughts as beliefs, they become moldable. It’s a lot easier to change a belief than something you perceive to be inherent to your personality. It’s likely that this is the step where you will begin to recognize the role of your thought process with regards to your ability for resiliency.
Consequence: The way we behave, respond, or feel
Do you blame yourself for your failures? Do you shift the blame onto others? Do you begin working on strategies to overcome adversity or do you acquiesce to new challenges? How did those beliefs you recognized translate into actions? These are all questions that should begin to pop up once you’ve evaluated your beliefs. How you behave based on your beliefs may be the needed change you’ve been looking for.
Disputation: The effort we expend to argue or dispute the belief
This is a really exciting step because it asks you to argue with yourself using evidence. How are your beliefs invalidated by evidence? It helps to put into perspective those things you wish you could change to see that there’s more than one way of looking at them. For parents, this can translate into recognizing that what you see as failures may just be steps towards becoming the parent you want to be.
Energization: The outcome that emerges from trying to challenge our beliefs
This step asks you to reflect on the process. How did you feel after disputing yourself? Were you empowered or deflated? Did it lead to meaningful change or did you settle into repetition? Whatever the answer is, hopefully it has at least given you some perspective on your own internal processes and will allow you to better evaluate your strengths and weaknesses going forward.
Everyone wants to be happier, but that is not always a realistic goal. Happiness should never come at the expense of your well being, nor should it be a rigid goal. I’ve defended sadness in previous articles, where I also talk about the “cult of happiness” that is ironically often a source of unhappiness in the United States. What I see as truly valuable in Seligman’s work is his method as a way to strengthen your resiliency and create a positive outlook.
While much of Seligman’s work has been applied to everything from Soldiers experiencing PTSD to business leaders bouncing back from a bad sales year, the theme is almost always the same: Resiliency. Resiliency is what his model teaches and with it, optimism. Instead of being defeated by challenges and failures, we can learn to bounce back by going through the ABCD and E of our discomfort. Both discomfort and adversity are inevitable and I’d say even desirable parts of life, but it’s how we react to them that makes the difference. Let’s make our motto for today “I have the power to change my habits and beliefs.”