Psychological Self-Help

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165
You Too Can Learn To Be Optimistic
Pessimism provides an important explanation of depression and
learned optimism provides a means of recovery from hopelessness and
depression. In fact, being optimistic has many advantages. A recent
book chapter written by Shatte, Reivich, Gillham & Seligman (1999)
describes an experimental depression prevention program for children
(Penn Optimism Program or POP). Depression and feeling helpless, in
part, comes from using certain learned ways of explaining things.
Example: a depressed child tends to blame him/herself for things
going wrong ("I'm so dumb") and sees the cause--his/her dumbness--
as stable and influencing almost everything ("I mess up all the time
and always will"). Even though still self-blaming, the child who says, "I
did poorly because I didn't study enough," is much more optimistic
because a change is possible--a solution is available. An optimistic
child often thinks troubles are caused by external factors which are
changeable or avoidable and have limited influence, i.e. "I can avoid
this minor problem." Not uncommonly, the explanations may involve
external but untrue causes ("The teacher has it in for me" or "He
meant to hit me") and need to be changed to more self-responsible
thoughts ("I'd get better grades if I studied" or "Maybe I bumped
him."). To start thinking more optimistically and accurately requires
careful attention to and explicit instructions (from trainers or yourself)
concerning the details of one's thoughts and reasoning. No easy
educational/therapeutic/self-help task. 
In 12 weeks, the POP 2-hour groups of 10 to 12 depression at-risk
children were taught (a manualized curriculum) to recognize how their
interpretations of the causes of problems lead to their feeling
depressed or optimistic, helpless, angry and so on. Then each child
was given "reattribution training," i.e. they were taught to use an
optimistic "explanatory style" rather than a pessimistic line of
reasoning (see Cognitive and Rational-Emotional methods). In this
program, the POP staff taught children to think of many alternative
explanations--both optimistic and pessimistic--of behaviors and, then,
to decide which causes are the more accurate explanations, asking
others for feedback in the process. The training demonstrated that
pessimism leads directly to "catastrophic thinking" about the future. To
counter this, the POP children were asked to write out their predictions
of the future ("I'm sad because my Dad will probably leave") and then
check how realistic those expectations really are (How often do other
parents fight? Does that mean they will divorce? If divorced, does that
mean you wouldn't see Dad? Are some kids happier after divorce?).
The children come to see that optimism is a necessary part of
problem-solving too, because in order to find a solution one has to
consider the more relevant, more useable, more powerful ways of
influencing the problem situation. So, the POP program also trained
children to identify the best ways of changing or accepting bad
situations... that's realistic optimism. 
In conjunction with or in addition to more optimistic reattribution
training, the 5th and 6th graders in POP were taught several cognitive
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