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Learning to be optimistic

Research into twins reveals that somewhere between 25% to 50% of our key personality traits are passed on to us by our parents.

Things like happiness, passivity enthusiasm, depression, aggression, grumpiness, lust etc are about 50% inherited. We know this from the study of twins, where identical twins share the same DNA while fraternal twins, although born at the same time, do not. It turns out that identical twins are very likely to share the same personality traits such as pessimism or optimism, while fraternal twins are no more likely to do so than other brothers and sisters. Seligman argues that this may not be due to 'optimism genes', but to childhood experiences in which we might pick up our parents' explanatory styles, thus 'inheriting' their personality traits, but not genetically.

Other adults, such as teachers and sports coaches, can also have a sharp influence on our explanatory styles, depending on how they deal with our successes and failures in childhood. If they use pessimistic explanations for failure ('you'll never be good at art') then their predictions are likely to come true. 

Since we inherit only around 50% of our level of pessimism or optimism from our parents, it follows that we can work on the other 50% to increase our feelings of optimism. This doesn't just apply to pessimists who want to become more optimistic, but also to born optimists who want to become even more so, or who may have parts of their life where they tend to think negatively about themselves and want to reframe their attidude.

US Psychologist Albert Ellis is best known for developing Rational-Emotive Therapy (RET), which challenged the Freudian view of mental illness by declaring that our emotions derive from the way we think. His ABC technique on building optimism has been adapted, and its efficacy validated, by Seligman and Reivich.

The ABCDE technique suggests that we experience Adversity (A) just about every day of our lives, ranging from the trivial (no milk in the fridge for our coffee) to life-changing (job loss, divorce, death of a loved one).  Big or small, these events prompt us to think about why things happened and they result in us developing a Belief (B) about the event, the circumstances, and our role in the event. Once this belief takes root in our mind, there are emotional Consequences (C) which are based purely on our belief.  To overcome those erroneous beliefs we should use Disputation, which, when successful, Energises  you.

If we develop irrational beliefs about life events, then we generate irrational emotions. Conversely, rational beliefs result in rational emotions.  So if we learn how to recognize our irrational beliefs and replace them with healthy ones, we will feel better.

We can all use this ABCDE model to challenge our own thinking, or that of friends, students, colleagues, patients etc. It should be noted that the beneficial effect of disputing your pessimistic beliefs is not permanent, so you have to continue with disputation each time you catch yourself coming up with a pessimistic explanation when something goes wrong. It is in Professor Seligman's terminology 'cosmetic'. More in-depth advice on how to challenge pessimistic thinking using this technique in included in the tools, tips and techniques section. You can also hear Professor Martin Seligman outline the technique in the audio section. 

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