I’ve been completely consumed by books lately. My obsession has helped me avoid the black hole that is social media the last few weeks. My binging is a byproduct of my obsession with trying to understand human habits and how we can consciously change them. Quotes from the greatest minds through history abound with the advice that who we are is the culminations of our habits. I sincerely think that the most important task the young adult has to perform before they start spreading their genetic material is to become aware of their habits, reprogram the faulty ones, clean the good ones, and delete the bad ones.
This post is focused on our mental habits concerning how we look at the future. I’m currently reading Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness. Seligman is the face of positive psychology and the foremost expert on learned helplessness and learned optimism. In the psychological academic hierarchy, he is one of the apes at the top. And all the advice I am offering in this post in directly from his book.
To be human is to tell stories. To be “woke af” is to realize that your view of the world is but one of a trillion ways the Rorschach Inkblot that is the Universe can be perceived. The universe is like the ocean, and your mind is a cup. Your “understanding” of the cosmos is the gulp you see in your little vessel. The key to this post is to realize that the water in your cup is not the ocean, and that you are capable of remodeling your cup into whatever configuration you can imagine.
Optimism and the Future
Optimism is one of the best predictors of future resistance to depression, increased performance at work, and good physical health. When an event happens to us, we each have a habitual thought pattern we employ unconsciously. We instantly myth make. The next section is going to explore and explain how we can train ourselves to myth make in an optimistic way. And this is literally magic. Our world is an amalgamation of the myths we tell ourselves about it. When we take conscious control over how we myth make, we are literally molding our world.
The Two Dimensions of Optimism
Permanence vs Temporary
Specific vs Universal
The Warrior and the Invalid
Seligman uses the terms “Optimist” and “pessimist.” From this point on, I will use Warrior to refer to the optimist and Invalid when referring to the pessimist. Seligman has spent more than 30 years studying this subject and all the information I provide is from his research.
The Warrior’s Myth
Bad events are temporary and local.
Good events are permanent and universal.
The Invalid’s Myth
Good events are temporary and local.
Bad events are permanent and universal.
A little over a year ago I had a back spasm that crippled me. I couldn’t move. I was alone in my room, face pressing into the carpet, shocked. I had been an athlete all my life, I had deadlifted and squatted the day before. I instantly thought I would never be able to walk again. I started thinking about what life may be like not being able to stand or walk. I thought that killing myself would be better.
A Warrior would tell herself that this crippling pain will heal soon, and the cause is due to an over strained muscle. The situation is temporary and the cause is local and specific. An Invalid would tell the story I found myself telling myself. The back injury was permanent, and the damage that caused it was due to some structural issue of my spine that could not be fixed.
After a few weeks, I started going on walks again. I was very timid about moving in any kind of dynamic way. Eventually I built the courage to go play basketball by myself. I lightly sprinted up and down the court, got about a hundred shots up, and broke a sweat for the first time in 6 weeks.
The Warrior would tell himself that this is now our natural and permanent state. The ordeal has made us stronger and more grateful for our health. To be able to move one’s body is a universal gift. The Invalid would whisper that this is a fluke; that at any moment, the spasmodic serpent will coil again and we will be resting our face on the ground. The aweful is bound to happen and it is only a matter of time.
Find Out What Myth You Tell Yourself
Seligman has an Optimism test on his website (Go to Questionnaires, and find the Optimism Test.). I took it and got a score that would reflect how I reacted to my back spasms. The scoring key will make sense when you take the test. I recommend giving it a try.
Pmb = 3 PmG = 3
PvB = 4 PvG = 4
HoB = 7 HoG = 7
HoG minus HoB = 0
I’m slightly pessimistic, but like I wrote at the top, this myth making habit is changeable and the next section will show you how.
Seligman calls this the ABCDE model, but as you will see, this is an exorcism translated into the language of cognitive psychology. (This technique is a basic tool in CBT which is the most effective therapy tool psychologists have in treating depression and bipolar disorder. It fucking works.)
Adversity – The event that triggers your automatic pessimistic thought patterns. The first step is to become aware that you automatically produce these thoughts.
Beliefs – The automatic pessimistic thought patterns.
Consequences of the automatic pessimistic thought patterns
Dispute the automatic pessimistic thought patterns
Energization from successfully disputing the automatic pessimistic thought patterns
You can imagine a poor religious farmer a couple centuries ago who whenever he saw a pretty young women and felt the natural biological reactions arise in his body, would hear a whispering demon telling him that he is damned, that he will never be in the Kingdom of Heaven, and that he will never be able to change this. This is not a commentary on religion, but rather something that is fascinating psychologically.
We use the pervasive myths of our time to understand the world and ourselves. What is now the domain of cognitive psychology was once, for a certain subpopulation, the domain of religion, and the myths that each system used were the software from which the individual constructed the story of their lives.
We have demons. We have automatic pessimistic thought patterns that were ingrained in our naive, mushy skulls by parents, coaches, teachers, and culture. The automatic pessimistic thought patterns you don’t delete or reprogram, you will pass onto your children and if you are persuasive, you will infect your friends.
Task: Turning Demons into Angels
Take the Test.
Use the Daily Pages for the next 5 days. Each day, think about some strongly charged event that happened recently. Examine how you myth’d this to yourself. Was it positive or negative? Did you see it as permanent or temporary? Universal or specific? Changeable or fixed? Use the ABCDE method to reprogram how you myth.
Four Fundamentals of Disputing
The key is to recognize the automatic negative thought pattern. The 2nd most important thing is effectively disputing them. Here are Seligman’s recommendations.
Evidence – Many of our habitual thoughts are overreactions so finding facts that contradict the overreaction is easy and effective.
Alternatives – No single event is caused by or leads to only a single event. Creatively generate alternatives to why something happened and what it could mean.
Implications – Look at what the habitual thought implies. Choose alternatives that are pragmatic.
Usefulness – A negative thing may be true, but using the alternatives approach, sometimes a false or unprovable fact is more important then truth. (If you are a dogmatic rationalist, this may cause an unsettling feeling.)