“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” – Albert Einstein
It was merely something some guy said in a blog. I don’t even know him. But one sentence he wrote sent me careering like a drunk on a bike. The ground was gone. What had started as a pretty good day, a productive one, even a happy one, went into a nosedive so quickly you could hear the whoosh of a toilet.
It doesn’t matter exactly what the guy said. I don’t remember now. Nevertheless, I took it way too personally for words from some one I will likely never meet. I fell into an emotional vertigo, the landscape suddenly wobbly. Out of nowhere, I was hopeless.
Why is happiness such an ephemeral thing?
Martin Seligman may have answered why happiness has been so elusive for me. In his book, Learned Optimism, Seligman explains that pessimistic people are more likely to be depressed. Depressed people are more likely to be pessimists. In the simplest terms, pessimists have more trouble moving through the inevitable setbacks of life than optimists. According to Seligman, the three components of the pessimistic view are that failures are personal, permanent and pervasive.
Think about some of the times when your life unexpectedly twisted. When we fail, the pessimist is more likely to believe it is his fault. He believes whatever went wrong will happen again and again. Most important, he believes this one thing gone awry carries over into every area of his life. He is just no good.
A friend set up a date on Match.com and was quickly rejected early in the evening. The pessimist will say something like, “I’m not likable. I’ll never meet a decent guy. My life pretty much sucks.”
Optimists take the opposite view. The inevitable unexpected “bad” in life is not their fault, whatever happened is temporary and contained to this one instance. On the Match.com date, an optimist would say, “I must have reminded that guy of his ex. He must have had a bad day and was taking it out on me. It was only one date. I think I’ll see if my friends know someone I could see.”
How we talk to ourselves in good and bad times determines whether we will stay up on the bike to better times or let our fall keep us from down.
I’ve simplified the example, but Seligman’s book is quite powerful in drawing the connection between pessimism and depression. How we talk to ourselves in good and bad times determines whether we will stay up on the bike to better times or let our fall keep us down. Optimists take a larger share of personal accountability than pessimists when things go well and less when they don’t.
My wife is a classic example of an optimist. She feels things deeply. She is among the most empathetic people I’ve ever known. Yet I’ve never known anyone who can move also through sadness or difficulty so well, regaining her balance quickly.
The optimists among us still fail, get hurt, feel sad. But optimists don’t stay that way. They recover more readily because they have a healthy boundary between accepting personal responsibility and seeing the part that others play–the cause of the occurrence is outside of themselves. Moreover, their sadness is over something specific and is likely to pass soon. Optimists don’t spend a lot of time ruminating when things go wrong.
The guy who wrote the piece on his blog said something that set me ruminating, another difficulty pessimists face according to Seligman.
I made several mistakes besides the ruminating. One is being so accepting of this “expert’s” insights and taking what he said personally. The worst part is that I took it to be the capital T Truth, extending this one thing to apply to my fundamental approach to life. I suddenly saw that everything I did was wrong and I was permanently off track.
My sudden depression led to a conversation with my wife over our different approaches when the unexpected happens. We get set off by different things, she and I. For example, we decided we wanted new countertops. This led to replacing our undersized dishwasher with a regular-sized one. As with so many house projects, this meant additional work–I had to tear out the existing sink, the existing plumbing, garbage disposal and all, and the existing cabinet to make room for the new dishwasher. Not a huge project, but a sizable one. To make things more challenging, the dishwasher didn’t come with the electrical cord. It takes seven to 10 business days from the manufacturer.
The kitchen is torn up. Everything that was on the counter is now on the dining room table. It’s caused a minor upheaval in our home because we suddenly have no counter space, no water and no way to wash dishes. For me it’s just a project that eventually will make our lives better.
“You are the most patient person I know,” my wife said today. “Except you get flustered with the future and thinking about the past.”
She on the other hand, gets verklempt with the pace of projects like our kitchen.
I’ve learned a lot from my wife by observing how she keeps moving through life’s challenges, which are almost continual. She has a vision and confidence unshaken by just about everything she faces.
I’m big on personal accountability. There is too much deflection in our society–we blame everyone but ourselves. Except the pessimists and the depressed. We make everything our fault. My wife reminds me that sometimes I take too much responsibility and discount the part others play.
There is too much deflection in our society–we blame everyone but ourselves. Except the pessimists and the depressed. We make everything our fault.
The dance between reasonable personal responsibility and being self-destructive is delicate. But even if we fail in this regard and shirk accountability once in a while so we can feel happier, even optimistic, that is okay with me. After spending so many years in the basement emotionally, it’s nice to breathe the fresh air of optimism. Seligman’s Learned Optimism, reinforces that we can learn to be optimists by changing the way we explain to ourselves what happens to us.
It is like a familiar, heavily-rutted road we drive every day. Our thoughts are automatic, good and bad. Our responses become habits. By recognizing how we are explaining things, we can re-write our mental scripts. We can re-frame events as they unfold so they are less destructive to us. It’s not that sometimes we won’t be sad or hurt. We also can see that others have a role in our experiences. We can see bad things in life as temporary. We can see them as singular events with a particular cause rather than “just the way life is” for us.
Changing from pessimist to optimist is consistent with a move toward minimalism. Becoming more of a minimalist, which I’ve written about here, requires a deliberateness of thought. Minimalism is not just about what we acquire. It is also about taking control of our habitual thinking and choosing to think about things in a healthier way.
This is momentous stuff. Seligman reinforces that like Einstein, we can keep our balance and ride forward toward a new, smoother road into the sun.
Martin Seligman’s book is of course available on Amazon: Learned Optimism. I urge you to consider supporting your local bookstore. We have a couple in Ann Arbor–Nicola’s Books and Literati Bookstore. One of my favorites is in Goshen, Indiana–Better World Books. There are still plenty of really good bookstores around. Amazon is easy and a phenomenal business, but so are these locally-owned bookstores.