Martin Seligman's Journey (continued)

The Child Optimist
   One psychology program whose effectiveness won't require much study to ratify is Seligman's brilliant Penn Depression Prevention Program, which broke new ground in 1990. Detailed in his fascinating 1995 book The Optimistic Child, this remarkable program was developed by Seligman and three young psychologists at Penn -- Dr. Karen Reivich, C'88, G'92, Gr'96, Dr. Lisa Jaycox, G'89, Gr'93, and Dr. Jane Gillham, G'90, Gr'94. It has, in several different situations and over several years, repeatedly reduced the occurrences of depression in children by half.
   The program, which has since been renamed the Penn Resiliency Project, was inspired by a life-changing discussion that took place in 1984, when Seligman attended a conference at the MacArthur Foundation. He describes those meetings as a "face-off between prominent psychologists and immunologists." The issue was what to do (and in particular, how to fund) a fledgling discipline called psychoneuroimmunology, a field of science widely investigated today, which basically studies how the mind affects the body's immune system.
   Among the many celebrated participants at this 1984 conference was Dr. Jonas Salk, whose polio vaccine had changed the world decades before. Being the most famous immunologist in the world, the elderly Salk attempted to arbitrate the heated arguments being waged between the biological immunologists and the psychologists. And his private words to Seligman, recounted in Learned Optimism, resonated:
   "If I were a young scientist today, I would still do immunization. But instead of immunizing kids physically, I'd do it your way. I'd immunize them psychologically. I'd see if these psychologically immunized kids could then fight off mental illness better. Physical illness too."
   The Penn Resiliency Project typifies how Seligman was able to switch his scientific gears away from learned helplessness and toward psychological immunization. By then, his work on learned helplessness had already made him an expert on depression and pessimism. He had created powerful tools capable of diagnosing how a person's level of pessimism could measure their risk for developing depression. Inspired by the work of Penn's legendary "depression wizard," Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the University Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Seligman had also spent years refining a number of cognitive techniques and exercises which helped to relieve and heal persons with depression, and prevent future recurrences of that ever-more-pervasive illness.
   To vastly oversimplify the very complex field of cognitive psychology, its fundamental, revolutionary concept, first articulated by Beck in the late 1960s, is that severely negative or depressed emotional states are caused by the negative thoughts we tell ourselves. This may seem like simple common sense, but at the time it was revolutionary, and its implications staggering.
   Since Freud invented psychotherapy, the basis of all therapy rested on the nature of events that had affected people in their lives, and the behaviors and emotional states that people developed as a consequence of those events. Beck, soon joined by Seligman, postulated that it was not the events themselves but the thoughts we used to explain these events to ourselves that were the major determinants of whether or not, for example, we might develop depression. If so, Beck and Seligman maintained, then people at risk for depression should be able to fend it off by intellectually "disputing" the severely negative thoughts they think to explain various events in their lives.
   For example, with the benefit of treatment to alter his or her "self-explanatory style" and develop a reflex of disputing negative thoughts, the ruminations of someone going through a painful divorce might sound something like this: "I failed at my marriage -- well, there's nothing particularly unusual about that, marriages fail half the time in the end, it was my fault: I could have saved it -- well, then again, my lousy spouse could have saved it too, and now that I think about it, what I'm missing most about our marriage were those terrific early memories when it was good; in fact, if we were still together right now, we'd probably still be at least as miserable together as we were the last few years I made so many terrible mistakes -- well, I wasn't the only one in this marriage, and after all, to err is human "
   With astounding scientific power, Seligman and a host of collaborators around the country (and even beyond) have proven that learning these inner "disputation skills" can speed the recovery of depression, and, perhaps more important, can actually prevent it.
   Feeling Good Versus Doing Well
   The Penn Resiliency Project has for the past eight years proven that cognitive therapy can not only help adults, but also can successfully immunize children against depression. It recently earned a five-year, $2 million grant from NIMH to continue its work.
   Even the most jaded critics of government-funded science would be hard-pressed to object to this use of their tax dollars. Whereas childhood depression (in a strict, clinical sense) was a relative rarity just two generations ago, American children are now suffering from a full-fledged epidemic of depression. Today, about one in four children experiences serious, debilitating depression before reaching adulthood.
   What's gone wrong? Seligman has a few answers. To again oversimplify a complicated argument, Seligman lays a lot of blame on the "self-esteem" movement for replacing the old-fashioned goal of "doing well" with the contemporary goal of "feeling good."
   While the Penn Resiliency Project has earned the attention of child- psychology experts around the world for its effectiveness, its cost-efficiency has also earned the admiration of school administrators, whose focus is the bottom line. The program consists of just 12 sessions, held once a week for about 90 minutes, with children whose answers to a questionnaire indicate that they are particularly susceptible to depression. Employing an engaging series of exercises utilizing stories, cartoons, group discussions, and other techniques, the program ingrains powerful reflexes in pessimistic children -- to change what they tell themselves about failures and to encourage them to persist in the face of those failures.
   In essence, the project tries to re-imbue today's children with the values taught a generation ago. In his speech to the North Carolina psychologists, Seligman touched upon what was my own favorite book as a child. "Thirty years ago," he said, "the most influential children's book of the time was The Little Engine That Could," the endearing tale of the little locomotive engine who wasn't sure if she could pull a train over the mountain but who kept telling herself, "I think I can, I think I can" and prevailed.
   "Think for a moment about what you are most proud of," Seligman asked his audience, then paused briefly. "I'll bet that what you just thought of now has something to do with some goal at which you at first encountered failure, but which you persistently kept pursuing until you achieved your goal, whether it was love work or play "
   This sense of persistence in the face of failure forms the heart of Seligman's vaccine against depression in children. It involves not only sophisticated disputation skills but also a lot of good old-fashioned hard work. Seligman's emphasis on hard work clearly separates, and elevates, him from his more popular, less scientific peers in the wide world of popular culture's optimism gurus.
   "A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent," Seligman writes in the introduction to his profoundly realistic 1993 mass-market book, What You Can Change And What You Can't. "I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes "
   By putting a happy face on failure, he argues, the blind optimism pushed by the self-esteem movement is actually counterproductive. "Optimism that is not accurate is empty and falls apart," he writes in The Optimistic Child. "Life defeats it." In the long run, he says, encouraging your child to work harder to achieve his or her specified goals will be far more effective.
   As he writes in The Optimistic Child, "The feeling of self-esteem is a byproduct of doing well. Once a child's self-esteem is in place, it kindles further success. Tasks flow more seamlessly, troubles bounce off, and other children seem more receptive. There is no question that feeling high self-esteem is a delightful state to be in, but trying to achieve the feeling side of self-esteem directly, before achieving good commerce with the world, confuses profoundly the means and the end."

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