Resilience Skills Are Teachable
This is Part 2 of a series on The Ultimate Wellbeing in Education Conference (#IPENWellBeingEd) that our CEO, Dr. Mollie Marti, attended in London late last year. Read Part 1 here.
Martin Seligman, pictured above, who directs the Positive Psychology Center, gave an overview of the important paradigm shifts we’ve experienced over the past century in the field of psychology. A few key points that resonated with us:
- We have shifted from viewing psychology as being concerned with misery, conflict and struggle to understanding psychology as going beyond the reduction of misery to expanding positive well-being.
- We have shifted from assuming that humans are blank slates formed solely by experience to understanding our capacity to metabolize our past and present in ways that can create a new future.
- We have shifted from focusing the locus of action on clinics that treat pathology to using our schools, workplaces, and other key forums of living to provide positive education and innovate ongoing supports.
In the 1960’s, Seligman initiated research on “learned helplessness.” This is a behavior that occurs when animals or people experience negative events beyond their control and give up, rather than learn or attempt pathways to avoid or escape negative stimuli in different situations. Symptoms include mood changes such as sadness and anger, lethargy, weight changes, interrupted sleep, fatigue, greater passivity, a sense of worthlessness, and negative thought patterns that interpret the present as terrible and the future as bleak. In humans, learned helplessness also increases suicide ideation or thoughts of death.
From the finding that only two-thirds of people exposed to aversive stimuli in the lab became helpless – meaning that one-third showed resilience regardless of adversity — the question arose: what protects people from becoming helpless when exposed to adversity?
This line of questioning lead to Seligman’s research on “learned optimism”, which discovered that optimists tend to use three cognitive strategies when tragedy strikes or smaller setbacks occur, such as failing a math test:
- Temporary (versus permanent) – e.g., “I made mistakes on that test” versus “I will never be good at math”
- Local (versus pervasive) – e.g., “I didn’t do well on that test” versus “I’m not good at anything”
- Controllable (versus uncontrollable) – e.g., “I didn’t study enough for that test” versus “I’m a poor student”
When teaching, we refer to this strategy as avoiding the “3 P’s” – Permanent, Pervasive, and Personal. When you learn to mindfully and consistently avoid interpreting any setback as permanent, pervasive, or personal, you will grow your resilience.
Today’s setback is today’s setback. Learn the lesson, turn the page, and keep moving forward.
Seligman has found that an effective way to help people move through these thoughts is to teach them to recognize their most catastrophic thoughts and argue against them being permanent, pervasive, or uncontrollable. He says that a key to finding this evidence is to imagine that these statements are being said to you by your greatest rival and argue against their reasoning. Studies on various groups, from teens to military, have shown a significant reduction in depression, anxiety, and substance abuse when people learn these self-arguing skills.
A promising line of study is using this technique to reduce cardiovascular disease (CVD) because pessimists are more likely to die from heart disease. The bottom one-fourth of pessimistic thinkers, who believe that bad events that happen to them will last forever, undermine everything in their lives, and are their fault, have a three times greater risk of CVD. Seligman noted that this is the risk equivalent of smoking 2.5 packs of cigarettes a day.
The greatest takeaway for us all:
Resilience and optimism can be grown through teachable skills. When we learn and practice these skills, we not only become more resilient, we also improve the quality and even length of our lives.
Next in our series, we will examine the role of positive psychology on resilience.
If you are in London on March 21st and interested in an exciting day of learning in the areas of Mental Health, Wellbeing and Education, check out The 4th Ultimate in Wellbeing in Education Conference.
On this side of the world… if you are in Iowa this Thursday, February 14, join our trauma and resilience trainer from the UK, Lisa Cherry, at our Resilience First Aid Series: Embracing Our Vulnerability to Build Community Strength.