Rendered Fat Content


Anonymous Germany (Augsburg): The Rich Man
- Scene from the
Story of Jehosophat and Barlaam (1476)

"Sometimes it seems like something entirely different."

Martin E. P. Seligmann was a graduate student when he stumbled upon his Success. He was performing experiments with dogs when he noticed that the dogs seemed to become pessimists under certain conditions and started refusing reinforcement. He hypothesized that dogs could learn pessimism. He wondered, if dogs can learn to become pessimists, could they also be taught to be optimistic, and could humans? Thus began his life's work, which so far, at age eighty, has taken him to the top of the Self-Help (a genre he almost personally invented) bestseller lists and to the head of The American Psychological Society. His book, Learned Helplessness, became the basis for the now burgeoning field of Positive Psychology, and spawned a cool half dozen follow-on books which built upon that original base. Learned Helplessness includes a very clever and attractive chart that lists various tactics for countering Learned Helplessness. We've probably all been subjected to some form of these tactics.

When I was a kid, my mother's go-to tactic for countering sadness was to advise her suffering child to "Turn that frown upside down."
Seligmann's tactics seem little different, and I came to understand that while his insight could prove helpful, its utility hardly seemed as universal as it appeared upon first encounter. He insisted that the quality of one's ExplanatoryStory could determine the difference between a positive and a negative experience. The same action could produce diametrically opposed reactions, depending upon the story the actor tells themself about their experience. This philosophy might put a lot of pressure on the actor to invent a positive story regardless of their experience. In extreme circumstances, adverse reactions might be encouraged by the actor's lack of ability to dredge up a more positive ExplanatoryStory. Again, this philosophy places a lot of onus on the actor.

Maybe that onus belongs there, though. If the actor cannot dredge up a reasonably motivating ExplanatoryStory, that could be the key to understanding when to seek professional assistance to get through and beyond the blockage. A skilled counselor might possess nothing more than an empathic imagination capable of proposing alternative ExplanatoryStories. What seems tragic within one frame might seem magic from within another, and the most skilled counselors seem fully capable of proposing an infinite number of alternative ExplanatoryStories, under the guise of "whatever works, works."

It's probably important to note that the underlying truth of an ExplanatoryStory has little to do with its utility. If one can swallow a fictional account and it provides the expected service—i.e., buoyed optimism about the future—it's valid. An actor might, over time, construct a fantastic facade behind which he continues performing. The edge between sanity and sociopathy might, in extreme cases, be challenged, but in general, whatever the story, if it motivates moving forward, it's considered healthy.

I carry more than vestiges of this philosophy, for it's always seemed alluring since I fancy myself a storyteller. What could be a better cure for an ailing storyteller than the prescription: physician, tell yourself a better story? The responsibility lies securely upon me to muster up the story. As my mother taught me, simply turn that frown upside down when frowning. The tactic carries a built-in metric. If I feel better under the influence of a story, then I've successfully overcome that latest bout of pessimism. I need not go full Chamber of Commerce on myself and might find satisfaction merely buoying my optimism without amplifying it overmuch.

Success in this frame becomes the power to induce optimism in myself. It's even allowed to leverage outside counsel. A therapist might assist without in any way discrediting this perspective. Whatever the source of the reinvigorating story, if the story shifts perspective toward the positive, it's considered beneficial, and the search for it, successful. Yes, the true sociopaths among us employ this tactic to maintain self-delusion. Any at-root good thing can get ruined by abuse. Questions remain within the professional ranks about how much Seligmann's philosophy amounts to abusing the concept. The clinically depressed might be impervious to the magic of ExplanatoryStory. Even the true believer can sometimes find it impossible to employ it successfully. It's as if knowing about it disables one's ability to utilize it. Sometimes, this process lies beyond apparent access, leaving us at an even greater disadvantage. Success isn't always just a better ExplanatoryStory. Sometimes it seems like something entirely different.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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