Wednesday, 7 November 2012

"Learned Optimism"

I have been reading a new book, called something like ‘Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life’ by a Martin E. Seligman. It was on the reading list on the back page of a handout from one of those motivational seminars run by Gurus at my university. After a particularly useful talk, my motivation temporarily boosted and PhD depression at bay, I turned to the Guru in question and asked him, if we were to buy just one book off the recommended reading list, which one would he recommend?... Without hesitation, he told me to read this one. I put a big circle around it on my list, and as I did so, I noticed the flurry around me as other graduate students, also keen for a longer-lasting motivational hit, whipped out their pencils and also circled it on their reading lists, to a general chorus of ‘Which one? Which one? That one?’ and ‘Thank you!’

About a year and a half later, I unearthed that handout and saw that faint pencil circle around that title. I typed it into Amazon and clicked ‘Buy’. It was delivered to my Kindle in seconds. Ah, the wonder of the Kindle. So, after a year and a half, I finally read the motivational book. (I do this more and more these days, read motivational literature. I can also recommend ‘Stop Worrying, Start Living’, which is by Dale Carnagie, and which you can access here: ).

It’s an interesting read, the Seligman book. I can see why the Guru recommended it to struggling PhD students. It tells you a few things about your ‘explanatory style’. Seligman argues that everyone has a particular way of explaining bad events, and while some of us explain them in ways which are only temporary and basically positive – ‘I had a bad day today, but that was just because of XYZ; it’s no big deal; I’ll have another go at this chapter tomorrow’, others explain bad events with arguments which are permanent, pervasive and personal: ‘I just had a terrible day. I’m no good at this PhD. I’m really rubbish at everything I do. Will I ever do anything right?... Waaaaaaah…’.

This, the book argues, is the key to why some people get depressed easily while others bounce back from misfortunes; the problem lies in how we explain bad events, and if you are in the habit of explaining your misfortunes in ways which make it sound like you are to blame and the damage will last forever, then you are more likely to be in trouble. The book goes on to say that the way to change this is to practise recognizing these negative explanations which come into your head, and then dispute them: is it really so? is it really that I am rubbish at everything? Is my life reeeally ruined?... (my answer might be: I am not ‘rubbish’ at the PhD; I just didn’t work hard enough today.) And if indeed the evidence is there that the situation is dire, you must ask yourself: what is the usefulness of what I am doing – ie, what is the use of ruminating over this bad thing and blaming myself? Am I doing myself any good? ... No. What action, then, am I going to take instead?... In short, the book tells you to stop pessimistic thoughts in their tracks and focus on changing the way you think about things.

If you have a tendency towards self-pity and gloom, then doing a PhD will definitely unleash those things in you. A PhD basically gives you the perfect excuse to tell yourself things like ‘I can’t do this’ and things like ‘I will never get it finished’ (because, indeed, if you view the whole thing without thinking about how it breaks down into manageable chunks, of course it’s true to say that you ‘can’t do it’; you can only do it gradually, bit by bit, one day at a time). To all of you out there who are thinking of starting a PhD: if you have any tendency at all towards gloom and depression, you must go root those things out immediately before you even start thinking about doing a successful PhD.

Just for fun, I took Seligman’s ‘depression test’, which gets you to reflect on events from the past week and tells you on this basis how depressed you are. I gave it a go, with maybe one question which I may have answered slightly wrong (because when it asked me ‘did you feel annoyed at small, insignificant things this week, which normally don’t upset you?’ I answered ‘yes’; and on reflection a more accurate answer would have been ‘no’, because small pointless things usually do upset me, all the time.) My score came to 33 - which, I thought with relief, doesn't sound very high. However, according to Seligman, anything over 24 means that you are probably ‘severely depressed’, and, he adds, if you are also experiencing ‘suicidal thoughts’, you are urged to book yourself an appointment with a mental health professional immediately.

I thought, d’oh, Cloud Nine. Severely depressed, like whatever. More likely, you can’t add up properly. I totted up the numbers again, which, as I was very distracted, took several goes. Well, the good news is, my maths is just fine.

So does that mean I should book myself that appointment, or no?... If I do, then maybe, in a small way, this PhD will have turned out to have been a good thing?... For the first time in my life, there is something big enough and depressing enough hanging over me that I am forced to look at myself and my ‘depression’ seriously.

This raises a more serious question. All this time, I was convinced the PhD is the problem. Maybe – horror of horrors – the problem is in fact ME?

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