Learning to Hope
Optimists and pessimists inhabit different worlds, reacting to the same circumstances in completely different ways. Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, identifies three characteristics of pessimistic thinking. He describes these in his fascinating book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.
The first is permanence. This means regarding temporary, passing events as lasting and unchanging states. For example, your boss berates you about something. You react by thinking, “I really hate her,” and you go on from there to think of all the things you don’t like about your boss. Your boss’ reprimand is a single, passing event, but you turn it into something permanent, by thinking, “She’s always like that. She’s not going to change.” On the other hand, the optimistic person thinks, “The boss is in a bad mood today. She must have something on her mind,” limiting the event to that day and not extending it any further.
The second characteristic is pervasiveness. When one thing goes wrong, a pessimist thinks that everything is bad. This is like thinking that you can’t handle any school subject just because math is hard for you. When someone points out a mistake to a person with this attitude, they think, “I’m no good. I can’t do anything,” and become dejected instead of simply thinking that here is something that has to be fixed. Individuals like this think that their very worth as a person has been denied. A single spot grows into a huge black cloud filling their mind. They lose confidence and make more mistakes, creating a downward spiral.
The third characteristic of pessimism is personalization. That is, thinking that anything bad that happens is your fault and anything good must be credited to other people or to chance. For example, when an optimistic athlete or team loses a game, they think, “You win some, you lose some” or “The other team was really on top of their game today.” They don’t simply blame the loss on themselves. But when a pessimistic athlete loses, they think, “I’ve lost my concentration, I let so many good ones go by,” or “With hitting like that, we’ll never win.” When two teams are of the same level in ability, explains Dr. Seligman, the optimistic team is more likely to win.
Of course, we can’t lose sight of reality and, in an extreme version of optimism, cheerfully blame everything bad that happens on others. However, pessimism causes us to criticize ourselves needlessly.
When I met with Dr. Seligman during his visit to Japan in 1997, I expressed my thoughts on his views. The mind, I noted, is a wondrous thing. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Buddhism teaches that the quality of our lives ultimately depends upon our state of mind. Buddhism is a psychology of hope, and hope is my favorite word. Nodding in agreement, Dr. Seligman leaned his large frame toward me and said: “Optimism is hope. It is not the absence of suffering. It is not always being happy and fulfilled. It is the conviction that though one may fail or have a painful experience somewhere, sometime, one can take action to change things.”
According to Dr. Seligman, optimistic people are more likely to succeed at work and in personal relationships. They are healthier and live longer. He notes that the impact of our attitude on health becomes more pronounced from the mid-forties on.
Dr. Seligman’s theories are based on the idea that people can change. By changing our way of thinking, we can change our lives.
During our discussion, Dr. Seligman commented that psychology after World War II was mostly concerned with those who had profound psychological problems. He explained, however, that he aspired for what he called a “positive psychology”—one that gives people courage, hope and strength.
Dr. Seligman confesses that he himself was a pessimist by nature; he had to learn to be optimistic. When he was only 13, his father suffered a series of debilitating strokes that left him paralyzed. His father lost all hope and plunged into a terrible sense of helplessness. He remained in that state until his death several years later. Seeing this, Dr. Seligman says he decided to investigate what it is that makes people feel powerless and whether there might be some way to overcome these feelings.
Perhaps because he was originally motivated by these sad events, Dr. Seligman’s scholarship is imbued with a warm humanity, the noble aim of helping others. His “psychological revolution,” based on a deep confidence in the positive potential of human beings, has been called by some the most important development in psychology since Freud.
Dr. Seligman emphasizes the need to become aware of the explanations we make for events, the unconscious dialogue we conduct within ourselves when we run up against some kind of problem. We tend not to notice the quirks in our own thinking because over the years they have become habitual.
One method Dr. Seligman suggests for people to become aware of these thought habits is to write down what we are thinking to ourselves when we encounter some minor frustrating situation. If we find that we tend to react to events pessimistically, we can practice “disputing” our own negative beliefs to overcome that tendency.
For example, let’s say you rang and left a message for your friend to call you, but he doesn’t return your call. People with pessimistic thought habits will explain the situation to themselves by thinking, “He must be ignoring me.” When the conversation is just between us and ourselves, we seem to be ready to believe the worst. This is why learning to objectively dispute your own negative beliefs can be helpful: “As a matter of fact, he’s always been nice to me. He wouldn’t ignore me. He said he was having a busy week.”
Or you could try saying to yourself: “Even if he is ignoring me, what about it? I can’t be perfect in everything and not everyone is going to like me all the time. Whatever others may think, I’m doing my best. I’m going to give myself credit for trying at least!”
Dr. Seligman says we should practice this kind of optimistic thinking, inscribing optimistic phrases in our minds. Prayer or meditation can also engrain positive habits of mind. Once we have acquired the skill of being optimistic, it’s a lot like learning to swim or ride a bicycle.
As I noted earlier, Buddhism is a psychology of hope. A Buddha is one who has complete understanding and mastery of the unfathomable powers of the mind. Changing our state of mind can open the way to infinite realms of positive change. This process is what I call “human revolution.”
Buddhist philosophy clearly explains that a profound transformation in the state of mind of a single individual—just one person’s “human revolution”—can have a positive influence on an entire society. If our minds have the power to change the world, how can it not change our personal lives?
©2012 Soka Gakkai. All rights reserved.