This isn’t really a post, but rather a copy of correspondence. For those of you who have been following along with the comments on the Le Ballon Rouge post, I’ve been trying to figure out whether there’s any room for me as a psychological practitioner among high school students. I attended a presentation by Terry, the local school board’s resource person for “gifted” students, then went to a parents’ group she facilitates that focuses on the Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG). Among the handouts was a short essay based on Martin Seligman’s idea of “learned optimism.” Seligman is regarded as the guiding light behind the widespread enthusiasm for positive psychology. I won’t be attending any more of the meetings, but I thought I’d throw my two cents’ worth by writing a fairly non-controversial, non-cynical response and emailing it to everyone in the parents’ group. I had a couple of responses from Terry but nothing from anyone else. Here’s the correspondence. Call me a pessimist, but I’m thinking I’m not likely to get many referrals from her or the SENG group.
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Dear SENG members,
I enjoyed participating in the gifted parents’ meeting Wednesday night. Unfortunately I can’t make any more of the meetings due to family scheduling conflicts. However I wanted to comment on one of the handouts, called “Optimal Development and Performance: The Role of Explanatory Style.” Maureen Neihart, the author of this paper, makes a case for learning to become more optimistic:
Not to be a wet blanket or anything (lol), but Neihart doesn’t mention the research demonstrating that people already tend to be overly optimistic. In many areas of our lives we underestimate risks and overestimate the likelihood of success. People expect to live longer than average, underestimate their likelihood of divorce, overestimate prospects for career success, and so on. Even Martin Seligman, the guru of learned optimism, acknowledges that optimists are less realistic than pessimists. Now I don’t doubt that optimists are more fun to be around and that they’re more likely to build enthusiasm for their projects. On the other hand, would the USA have gone to war in Iraq if the American politicians and public had been a little more pessimistic and spent more time looking at the odds of success and the costs of engagement?
Neihart observes that pessimists tend to overemphasize the permanence and pervasiveness of negative events: everything is going wrong and it’s never going to change. Being somewhat of a pessimist myself, I have to admit that this sort of global negative assessment of the world isn’t realistic: everything doesn’t really suck all the time. However, I still think it and say it sometimes. Why? I suspect it’s because I’m aware that something is wrong that’s being brushed under the rug. Others aren’t taking my obstacles and disappointments seriously enough — maybe I’m not even taking them seriously enough. So how do I call more attention to these problems? I dramatize their permanence and pervasiveness. See how big this problem is? NOW will you pay attention?!
If my daughter tells me about how everything is terrible, she’s a worthless person, etc., my first reaction is to downplay her problem: it’s not that bad, it’s not that big a deal, you’ll get over it, etc. This might be a realistic response, but it also surely minimizes or even trivializes her subjective experience, as Sheard acknowledges on the last page of her paper. If my kid is making such outlandishly grand pessimistic statements, she must want to call my attention to something that’s bugging her. I have a sense that it would be better to acknowledge just how sucky this thing is first, and hear all about it. I might not even have to go through some sort of reality test with her after that, since mostly what she wants is to be heard. And I don’t want to minimize what’s bugging her even after the storm has calmed down: after all, we’re biased toward being too optimistic.
Americans are overly optimistic, but there’s still been a huge increase in depression over the last generation — what’s up with that? But that’s a whole nother topic. Thanks for your forebearance with my long-windedness. Thanks again for letting me come to the group.
John Doyle (parent of Fairview 9th grader)
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It’s great to have your thoughts about the article, John. A dialogue about this, and other articles, helps all of us understand our own personal beliefs more fully.
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(To whole group)
Thanks Terry for your thoughtful reply to my comments about optimism, and mostly I agree with what you said. I hope I haven’t put myself in the unenviable position of having to defend pessimism. I would surely fail to be persuasive, thereby reinforcing my own pessimism about being able to change people’s opinions.
You mentioned Seligman’s The Optimistic Child — the description on Amazon says this:
That sounds right. A few months ago I read the summary of an international study looking at math achievement test results and students’ confidence in their mathematical ability. Ironically, those countries whose kids had the HIGHEST average achievement scores also had the LOWEST math self-confidence scores. Maybe excessive self-confidence can get in the way of working toward mastery. Incidentally, I’ve seen some evidence contradicting the contention that adolescents are experiencing a big rise in depression compared to prior generations. Apparently depression is more prevalent in adolescence, then tends to decline with age. So researchers who look at a cross-section of the population and see a lot of teen depression might infer a society-wide change that’s more a life-stage thing. It’s also the case that depression is more likely to be diagnosed now that antidepressant medications are on the market.
Yesterday I came across an endorsement of sorts for pessimism [note to ktismatics readers — thanks to Gerry Canavan at Culture Monkey for links to this and other essays by and about Dick]:
“The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.
“The power of spurious realities battering at us today—these deliberately manufactured fakes never penetrate to the heart of true human beings. I watch the children watching TV and at first I am afraid of what they are being taught, and then I realize, They can’t be corrupted or destroyed. They watch, they listen, they understand, and, then, where and when it is necessary, they reject. There is something enormously powerful in a child’s ability to withstand the fraudulent. A child has the clearest eye, the steadiest hand. The hucksters, the promoters, are appealing for the allegiance of these small people in vain. True, the cereal companies may be able to market huge quantities of junk breakfasts; the hamburger and hot dog chains may sell endless numbers of unreal fast-food items to the children, but the deep heart beats firmly, unreached and unreasoned with. A child of today can detect a lie quicker than the wisest adult of two decades ago. When I want to know what is true, I ask my children. They do not ask me; I turn to them.”
This quote is excerpted a 1978 essay entitled “How to Build a Universe that Won’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” written by Philip K. Dick. Dick was probably schizophrenic and certainly a substance abuser; when you read his science fiction you immerse yourself in a variety of unstable universes where pessimism is the only realistic response. Would I look to Philip Dick as a role model for my child? He probably wasn’t a very happy man, and he wasn’t really a great writer; still, he could see things that others can’t. Hmm, seeing things that others can’t… sounds like hallucination, a symptom of psychosis. But Dick could also show these paranoiac and distorted universes to his readers. Some people can probably never see what Dick shows them — they might be more well-balanced, more optimistic, more successful, less prone to depression. But people who can see often regard Dick as someone who looks behind the cheerful facade of everyday society to some darker truths. I suspect that Philip Dick is one of the few writers high school boys will read without it being assigned by a teacher.
I think about the assigned readings in my daughter’s freshman English class — 1984 by George Orwell, poetry by Edgar Allan Poe and Sylvia Plath — and I ask her: would you say Orwell is an optimist or a pessimist? Pessimist, she says without hesitation. Poe? Plath? The same. I suspect all these pessimistic writers, Dick included, would have fit into the “gifted” category. Being way out on the right tail of the statistical distribution means a kid can excel where others must struggle to attain mediocrity — this should instill optimism and self-confidence. But sometimes being gifted means being able to see things most other people can’t see. If this kind of gifted kid tries to show others what s/he sees, s/he is liable to meet with outright rejection or, perhaps more likely, blank stares. The easier, happier path might be to forget these troubling visions and join the rest of the world. If, though, the kid can hang onto these visions and maybe get one or two others to see them too, s/he might be able to do something exceptional with his/her gift without having to sink into the deeply pessimistic funk that probably plagued people like Dick, Poe and Plath.
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(To me personally)
This quote, from your response, is the reason I speak to parents about encouraging their children to take healthy risks. It is from taking risks and accepting challenges that true growth occurs. In fact, decades ago, millions of dollars was poured into schools in California to raise the students’ self esteem. Teachers were trained to praise their students without abandon. The study backfired when self esteem actually dropped, rather than increased. It was then that Seligman wrote this quote:
“Seligman discounts prevalent theory that children who are encouraged by others to feel good about themselves will do well. Instead, he proposes that self-esteem comes from mastering challenges, overcoming frustration and experiencing individual achievement.”
“The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance.”
Looks like no one else in the SENG group was willing to take the time (or the risk) to become a part of this conversation! Good luck with your future pursuits, and in the meantime, enjoy a couple of extra days with your daughter.