Martin Seligman’s Approach to Cognitive Therapy

Many people with depression believe that nothing good will ever happen for them. The norm is failure and disappointment, the exception is success, and when something good does happen, it doesn’t count. This is just the sort of inner belief and self-talk that cognitive therapy addresses, and one of its leading advocates is Martin Seligman. He explains his version of the cognitive approach, as well as the research behind it, in Learned Optimism. It’s well worth reading for its description of a path to recovery.

Seligman’s approach starts with the powerful influence of expectation on the way we think and feel about experience. His experiments led to the conclusion that each of us develops a basic attitude ranging along a continuum from pessimism to optimism. This basic orientation is established, often at a very early age, if we repeatedly experience painful situations in which we are helpless. As a child in a violent or abusive family or one where a parent may have a mental illness, this can happen with terrible frequency.

If helplessness is internalized or learned, the symptoms it produces match the common inventory of those for depression: low mood, loss of interest, appetite, sleep and energy, slowed movement and thought, poor concentration and feelings of worthlessness. These add up to a sense of hopelessness, and all this is made permanent by a pessimistic style of explaining experience.

Pessimistic thinking consists of three characteristics that are all too familiar to me and probably most readers of this blog.

  1. Permanence or the assumption that I will always do or experience bad things. I will never change.
  2. Pervasiveness, the expectation that all events in every part of my life will turn out badly.
  3. Personalization, the conviction that every bad thing I experience is my fault.

That adds up to a pretty bleak world view: every experience will always turn out badly because of me. Each specific event is typical of this permanent condition. A good one is due only to special circumstances that won’t occur again. However, those habits of thinking aren’t always part of a depressed outlook. An extreme optimist just turns this around: Every experience will always turn out well because of what I do. If something bad happens, that’s due to specific conditions making this a one-time event. It’s someone else’s fault.

Seligman has an interesting way of characterizing these habits of mind. He believes the pessimistic tendency evolved as a protective device, especially useful when humans lived under more exposed conditions without the shield from nature that technology has given us. After all, a life in the wild is a life on the lookout – for food, for danger, for survival. It was necessary to think about all the pitfalls and potential mistakes that could cost you your life. Expecting and preparing for the worst was the best way to avoid it.

Extreme optimistic thinking, on the other, doesn’t serve this purpose at all. It tends to be divorced from reality. No one would survive for long expecting that everything would work well and that bad happenings can be blamed on external problems. The ideal is to combine the realism of pessimism with the resilience of optimism.

Cognitive therapy effectively relieves depression by changing the pessimistic style of thinking to a more optimistic one – though hopefully not of the extreme variety. It does this by having you inventory the phrases and thoughts you use to explain what happens and then practice substituting more optimistic explanations.

For example, instead of saying that every problem is permanent (All bosses are unfair), you think more specifically (My boss is unfair about X.) Or instead of: I was late finishing this project because I can never finish anything on time; you might say: I was late with this because I accidentally deleted a file from my computer.

Once the optimistic style of explanation takes root, it becomes permanent, Seligman maintains, and depression is relieved. He believes that numerous experiments as well as the consistent results of cognitive therapy have proven two things: Pessimistic thinking is one of the major causes of depression – along with genes, bad events and brain chemistry – and that cognitive therapy is the best approach for long-term improvement.

Going beyond these conclusions, Seligman believes that the real cure for depression occurs when people find a meaning for their lives and a connection with a purpose that is larger than themselves. In this respect, he agrees with the ideas of Victor Frankl that are so powerfully expressed in Man’s Search for Meaning. But that level of meaning goes against the prevailing belief, in this culture, of the primary role of the individual.

We’ve become convinced, as Seligman sees it, that all purpose and meaning come from our own talents and drive. Self-help is so important because we need to constantly refine and enhance our skills and personal power. But when meaning depends entirely on our own accomplishments, failure can only come back to us as the sole cause. This reinforces the pessimistic style of explanation and makes it more widespread than ever. This is the cause, he believes, for the epidemic of depression that has occurred in the last several decades.

Whether or not you agree with all of this, I’ve found reading Learned Optimism an extremely helpful and thought-provoking experience. Seligman’s work is one of the major efforts to understand depression and explain why cognitive therapy is so effective. The cognitive approach has not been the whole remedy for me, but changing the way I think and what I believe about myself and my life has been central to recovery.

What has your experience been with cognitive therapy? Has it worked for you or have other treatments been more effective?

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