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Learned Optimism, Book Review Example

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Book Review

Dr. Martin Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (1990) explores the ides that feelings of pessimism, helplessness, and depression can be understood and treated as aspects of learned behavior. In other words, Seligman believes that the attitudes and emotional responses that people display to their environment, to other people, and to the way that they meet challenges can be influenced by learned behavior. The book asserts a few key principles: first, that each individual exists at a certain point in a range between complete pessimism and instinctive optimism; second, that the perspective that is experienced by an individual is greatly dependant on their experiences,  and third, that optimism is by far a better perspective to be held by individuals in order to cope with their daily lives. Optimism, according to Seligman, is also an indispensable attribute for any leader.

The book, as a whole, is about the capacity that not only leaders, but ordinary individuals have to fundamentally alter their outlook to achieve more  control over their feelings of helplessness and depression. The book is also about how individuals can best educate themselves to meet any crisis of challenge with positive results. Seligman notes that pessimistic people, by nature, increase the difficulty of successfully resolving challenges and conflicts in their lives. This tendency in pessimists is something that emerges from the aspect of helplessness that is always part of a pessimistic response. Seligman writes that is you are a pessimist, “in the hard times life deals us all, you will likely pay an unnecessary price. When these events strike, you may find yourself getting more depressed than you should” (Seligman, 2006, p. 53). By this reasoning, peak effectiveness and optimism are tied together in way that holds the two things in a symbiotic relationship.

The connection between competency and optimism is an extremely important concept in the book because it ties together the idea that competence reinforces optimism and that an optimistic attitude increases competency. There are many useful lessons, insights, and concepts in the book that attach tot his core principle.  One of the most important lessons in the book emerged from  a series of experiments in scientific study. Seligman  experimented with exposing dogs to electric shock in an attempt to measure their aversion level to certain activities. By monitoring how the dogs reacted to unpleasant experiences, Seligman arrived at a startling conclusion. he realized that some dogs reacted to shock by learning a sense of helplessness and they avoided performing not only the activity related to the shock, but activity in general. This led Seligman to the idea that helplessness is a learned behavior.

If helplessness is a learned behavior, then it is also likely that optimism and confidence are learned behaviors. Too often, the average person thinks that optimism and confidence are purely instinctive states or personality traits that are either present or absent in a persona and that refuse to be controlled by deliberate will. However, another aspect of Seligman’s research showed that when dogs were exposed to shocks that they could control, the learned how to perform actions that reinforced their sense of power and optimism. Therefore, optimism, just like pessimism and helplessness, can be taught. The fact that depression or optimism are influenced to a meaningful degree by learned behavior is profoundly important when it comes to treating depression of feelings of helplessness.

Such an understanding of the nature of optimism and personal competency are extremely relevant to leadership position, particularly those that relate to public service. This is because any leader in public service exerts an influence over the public at large that is not merely manifested through policy, but is also reinforced through demeanor and attitude. Also, any leader in public service is apt to encounter countless complex challenges that require both confidence and competency on behalf of the leader. Because feelings of optimism increase the ability to perform, a leader who is optimistic is a better leader.  A person who intends to be a leader in public service should not only be aware of the connection between optimism and performance, but that leader should be keenly aware of the fact that feelings of efficacy and feelings of helplessness are both learned behaviors.

Another reason that the book is important for prospective leaders in public service is because so many of the public problems that exists in society are based in feelings of helplessness that have been learned and internalized by victims of social issues such as poverty, or mental health. One persistent question that was raised in the book was whether or not the actions taken by a potential leader of therapist are those which  instill an abiding sense of optimism. In simplistic sense, what Seligman’s theory suggest is nothing less than the proposition that each of us can be taught to be an optimist, despite our present beliefs and the history of our personal experience.

This book is an excellent choice to be recommended to in-service or aspiring public service workers. As mentioned in the preceding discussion of the book, Seligman’s focus on learned optimism is not only beneficial to public service professionals, it is a necessary skill to be acquired by those who work in public services. The book is a bit technical in some sections because Seligman is intent on demonstrating that his ideas are rooted in empirical science. That said, the aspects of the book which are less technical are highly accessible even by someone without an interest in science. The book functions equally well as a scientific study and a self-help manual.

Reference

Seligman, M. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Knopf; Doubleday Publishing Group.

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