Fathers can be just as susceptible to depression as mothers. Studies have shown that one in 10 dads will experience post-natal depression, with new dads more susceptible three to six months after their baby is born. However, the good news is there’s a natural way to counteract depression, a set of thinking tools that act as psychological self-defence and it’s called ‘Learned Optimism’. Positive Psychologist, Miriam Akhtar, describes the techniques in her new book, Positive Psychology For Overcoming Depression and shares some here with DAD.info…
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” Henry Ford famously said, and it is true that both optimism and pessimism tend to act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Optimists expect good outcomes, even in difficult situations, which generates a positive mix of feelings that keeps them motivated and their mood up.
Pessimists expect things to go wrong which yields negative feelings from anxiety to anger, sadness and despair. But whether you’re a born optimist or pessimist, your mental state is more flexible than you might think. The research suggests that we do have the capacity to develop into more optimistic individuals, that you can learn optimism regardless of the legacy of your genes, upbringing or experience of life. Optimism is a muscle worth developing because it acts as a shield that protects us from spiralling down into depression. The benefits are vast – optimists have better physical and psychological well-being, are more resilient at dealing with life’s stresses, and are able to bounce back more easily than pessimists.
Pessimism puts you on the fast track to depression. You are more likely to give up when you hit an obstacle, which of course makes it more likely that the bad thing you’re dreading will go on to happen and your mood spirals down. When bad news intrudes into an optimist’s life, they don’t go into denial. Instead they look for ways to resolve the issue, which is why they adapt better to negative events. However, a mild dose of pessimism is not altogether a bad thing in later life. One study found that a realistically pessimistic perspective helps people adapt better to negative life events.
A positive In pessimism
There is one form of pessimism that is more positive than most. If you’re the type of guy who is always prepared: who carries sunglasses and an umbrella, who rehearses endlessly for a presentation you’ve delivered successfully before, or who figures out all the alternative routes to get to your destination, then you are likely to be a ‘defensive pessimist’. What defensive pessimists do is prepare for the worst and this acts as their coping strategy to manage anxiety. Defensive pessimism helps them gain a sense of control and channel that anxiety into the effort to perform well.
It’s not what happens, it’s how you respond
It’s not so much what happens to you in life that counts, as the meaning you give it. This is what separates an optimist from a pessimist. So let’s look at how a pessimist thinks when a bad event happens to them, like not getting a job they went for. They explain the causes of the misfortune as something personal, permanent and pervasive:
* It’s me. It’s all my fault. I was awful. They didn’t like me (Personal)
* It’s always like this. I’ll never get another job (Permanent)
* This bad luck is everywhere in my life. It’s all ruined (Pervasive)
An optimist thinks in the opposite way to a pessimist. So when something bad happens to an optimist, they think it’s not personal, it’s not permanent and not pervasive. So when they fail to get the job, they think:
* It’s got nothing to do with me. They must have found someone more experienced. (Not Personal)
* It’s not always like this. I’ve got jobs in the past. The likelihood is that something will come along in the future. (Not Permanent)
* This bad news isn’t everything. Other parts of my life are going well right now. (Not Pervasive)
Try experimenting next time something bad happens by thinking like an optimist to see if it helps to alleviate the pain.
There are three dimensions to challenging pessimism:
1. Think of the other possible causes for the negative event
Rightly or wrongly, optimists are more inclined to blame external causes (other people, circumstances) for things going wrong rather than themselves. This helps to preserve their self-esteem and confidence. So explore the bigger picture and notice all the other factors that might have influenced the bad thing happening but remember to take responsibility where appropriate.
2. Remind yourself that this is likely to be some temporary difficulty, even though it may feel permanent right now
Look to the past for evidence of things changing. We change, the seasons change, every cell in your body will change. This, too, will pass.
3. Look more broadly at other areas of life.
So you might have had a disappointment in this particular domain, but what other life areas are currently working well? Think of home, work, relationships, health, finances, leisure, study, etc.
Incidentally, not only do optimists think in opposite ways to pessimists about the causes of negative events, the same applies to the causes of positive events.
When a good thing happens to an optimist, they think:
* It’s me. The good thing is down to me. (Personal)
* It’s always. This is here to stay. (Permanent)
* It’s everywhere. This good fortune is going to spread. (Pervasive)
So try using these three dimensions to think like an optimist. The way we explain the causes of past events to ourselves will influence the mindset we will take to events in the future and this has a big impact on our mood.
Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression by Miriam Akhtar is out now.