Opinion by Debbie Zwanikken: Mindful moments on learned optimism

POSTED: 09/10/14 7:10 AM

As an ambassador for mindfulness, it is my task to enlighten you to the benefits of taking up a mindful practice. Today, I encourage you to hug someone with complete awareness as you lean in, feel the size of the person, the warmth or coolness, the pressure, vibration or any tingling. Bring into awareness where your bodies meet. Be aware of your head thoughts and your heart thoughts. This is a mindful hug.

Martin Seligman, the father of the “Positive Psychology” revolution, explains the concepts of learned optimism in his book Learned Optimism. The theory Seligman describes; pessimism can be a precursor to depression. Pessimism leads to lethargy and dullness rather than activity in the face of setbacks and disappointment. Pessimism feels bad intrinsically – worried, anxious, and down. Pessimism is self-fulfilling; Pessimist doesn’t persist when the going gets tough and therefore fail more frequently when challenged, even when success is attainable. Pessimism is associated with poor physical health. Even though pessimists can predict a negative outcome more accurately than optimist, they don’t feel better. Their “Explanatory Style” mutates a simple setback into a disaster, a disaster into a catastrophe. (These are the proper guidelines to rumination btw). However, pessimists do seem to have one virtue; they have a keener sense of reality. If we wanted to give our youth the capability to think like an optimist would we then have to ask them to turn a blind eye to reality? I think not! There are justifiable moments to use pessimism. If one is intoxicated (drunk/drugged) one should not use optimism (as in, I might make it home in one piece) to getting behind the steering wheel (sure many people drink and drug to become optimistic). Or say one is about to try a new approach to a banking system or in introduce new laws to a country, one should not use optimism as one works out the kinks to this new risky operation. If your goal is to counsel others whose future is dim, do not use optimism initially. If you are sympathetic to someone’s plight, listen carefully to all the person’s concerns and then consider optimism. Teaching children to be aware of their positive or negative chatter is what the school systems in progressive counties are doing. Usually you’ll find that a psychological department of a university has set up shop in local schools to run researches (PENN University/University of Massachusetts, etc.). Safe guarding peoples’ mental health is of great concern now. There is a prediction that 1 out of every 5 students and 1 in every 4 adults will suffer from a mental disorder or neurological disturbance at some time in their life. Let’s stop pretending that because the sun shines all year on St. Maarten these statistics have nothing to do with us. A group of 6th graders embark on taking an optimistic test. These questions; 8 permanently good/ 8 permanently bad (lasting or intended to remain unchanged- best birthday party/death/loss), 8 personalization good/ 8 personalization bad (how you label yourself) and 8 pervasively good / 8 bad (situations that arise a theft/a nice outing) will give a clear indication of method that children use to draw conclusion about circumstances that happen in their lives. For example,  a PsG (personalization)question would ask “You get a free ice-cream cone”- a. I was friendly to the ice-cream man or b. The ice-cream man was feeling friendly that day. Whether a child chooses (a) or (b) my task is to make the 10/11-year-old student understand the long term consequences of using a certain way of looking at things. Btw (a) is the most optimistic of the 2.  The other task is to have the child master thinking patterns that will bolster him in tough times. Martin Seligman has created a test that can help us tease our children’ “explanatory style” identifying our pessimistic thinkers and give them the opportunity to learn optimism. The idea of teaching children learned optimism before puberty, but late enough in their childhood because they are metacognitive (able to think about their thinking) is a brilliant approach as their malleable (flexible) brains are quite able to adapt to these new thinking concepts. You may wonder where do children get their “explanatory style”, usually their mother, but same sex parents can have a big impact too (considering that many children only have women raising them). Adult Criticism; teachers and parents influence how children talk to themselves. Children’s Life Crisis (separation from parent/divorce/death/illness etc). I will address this in another article. “A society that views its criminals as evil and its mentally ill as crazy does not support institutions truly designed for rehabilitation, but supports, instead, institutions meant for vengeance or for warehousing human beings to keep them out of sight” Martin Seligman.

Be Mindful

Debbie Zwanikken

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