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Learned optimism

I was recently asked what I thought of Barbara Ehrenreich’s writing on a positive attitude to cancer. I hadn’t read much of what she has written, but I found a piece on the Guardian that I believe sums up her opinion quite well. In brief, she finds that positive thinking is touted as an unthinking mantra, despite the lack of evidence that it actually makes a difference to clinical outcomes. Its proponents are quite aggressive in preaching the gospel, and seem on the whole to be fairly unsympathetic to those who can’t maintain that positive attitutude, no matter how they try. Moreover, they have no answer to the person who does maintain a positive attitude but whose condition worsens anyway. What can someone in that situation feel, except that they have failed?

In those circumstances, the “positive thinkers” are nothing less than cruel.

How does that square with my oft-stated wish to remain upbeat and positive. I think my approach is very different. I don’t welcome cancer as a gift. Alarmingly, some positive thinkers encourage cancer patients to do exactly that, according to Ehrenreich. Instead, I take the approach to optimism taught by Martin Seligman and others of the Positive Psychology movement. In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman shows that you can distinguish optimistic from pessimistic people by looking at how they react to events, both positive and negative. For example, the reaction could be “Oh, yes, that sort of thing is always happening to me.” You can’t tell from the reaction whether the event is perceived as good or bad. If it was a good event, then the reaction was very optimistic, whereas if the event were bad, then the reaction would be very pessimistic.

The reactions can be analysed for three things: how general the description of the event is; how pervasive in time; and how personal. A pessimistic person might say of a good event “Oh yeah, he compliments people like that all the time,” or “it was a lucky chance.”

An optimistic person treats bad events the same way as a pessimistic one treats good events. Both types seem to work hard to entrench themselves in a certain mood. I know which mood I would rather be in, and Seligman tells me that I can largely choose: people can choose their reactions so as to account for up to 57% of their mood. That is a huge proportion, and essentially gives the lie to the idea that there are naturally optimistic and pessimistic people.

I choose to be optimistic. That doesn’t mean that I take the view that all shall be well, no matter what. It means that when something happens I look for a positive explanation of the event. For example, when I found that my cancer had spread, putting it into stage M1, or stage IV depending on how you count stages, I could have taken that as entirely bad news. But I knew that the cancer had spread only to lymph nodes, and not to major organs. I’ll feel a lot better in the future, simply because my organs aren’t involved. That is something to be pleased about. I have countless other examples, too.

My attitude is different from positive thinking, because it is rooted in the facts of my case. The events happen, I choose how to react. I don’t react the same way no matter what the events are. For me that is a critical distinction. So far, it works. My mood is generally rather good, and I like it that way. It makes coping with the crap that much easier.

{ 10 } Comments

  1. Jayne Alexander | 19 January 2010 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Hi Chris I think your approach to your illness is a really good one and if it works to keep your pecker up then it must be good. What is the schedule with your treatment? I haven’t a clue whether its a day a week or everyday for a week for example. I’m not asking your for a gantt chart even though i know you love them so much 😉 hee hee.

    Looking forward to future posts!

    love Jayne x

  2. icyjumbo | 19 January 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    The chemotherapy takes place in three week cycles. There will be three cycles to start with, and then they’ll see how things are progressing, using a CT scan. If things are doing well, then there’ll be another three three-week cycles.

    Each cycle has three drugs, it’s known as an ECF regimen, for epirubicin, cisplatin, 5-FU (flourouracil). The 5-FU is continuously pumped from a small battery-operated pump and bag I wear around my waist 24 hours per day. The bag is changed every week at an outpatient clinic.

    Then there are the anti-biotics, the pain killers, my normal medicines for high blood pressure and cholestorol. In short, lots and lots of pills. I rattle, I’m sure.

  3. David Allsopp | 19 January 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Chris,

    I was telling Abby about this entry and the bit where you said “…choose their reactions so as to account for up to 57% of their mood”.

    Her reply: “Hmph. It’s only just over half!”

    Took me a good few seconds to realize she was winding me up 😉

  4. robert hughes | 20 January 2010 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Hi Chris

    When I saw that Barbara Ehrenreich thing in the Guardian I wondered what you’d make of it. So, thanks for reading my mind and telling me.

    I think she has identified the absurd excess of this sort of thing (cancer as gift) but as a result expresses herself too stridently.

    It is undoubtedly the case that a positive attitude, nurtured in the way that you descibe, makes a huge difference in anybody’s life.

    Snowing hard here today, I hope you’re OK. It’s beautiful to see the flakes fall. Beautiful too to see that it’s not settling.


  5. robert hughes | 20 January 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    ‘descRibe’ sorry.

  6. icyjumbo | 20 January 2010 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    @David, as long as she was positively winding you up, I think that’s perfectly OK.

    @Robert I think I can forgive her stridency–if indeed she is strident–because of the outrage she feels. But I know I am liable to get unreasonably angry about things I perceive as just plain wrong, or unfair, so I’m probably likely to cut her more slack than most.

    We are OK, but it snowed hard last night and this morning, and we had to postpone another trip to the hospital. Fortunately I have just about enough of my drugs to last until then, and it looks as though the roads will be navigable tomorrow. As for the beauty, I spent a bit of time with my camera this afternoon, and I think I might have quite a nice result. If I do, I’ll post it here.

  7. robert hughes | 20 January 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I’ll look forward to the picture. If you want to see my snow sculpture google ‘snow squirrel francesca’

  8. icyjumbo | 20 January 2010 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Found it. Cute! She’s looking very grown up now, isn’t she?

  9. David Allsopp | 20 January 2010 at 10:29 pm | Permalink


    Yes, she was definitely winding me up ;-).

    I liked Stephen Jay Gould’s turn of phrase in that article [1] about his cancer diagnosis – when told that the best prescription for success against cancer was “a sanguine personality”, he was pleased, but noted that “one can’t reconstruct oneself at short notice and for a definite purpose”.

    “Fake” positivity can be damaging to others in the same sitation, who see the external ‘happiness’, take it at face value, and feel failures for not being able to ‘achieve’ the same.

    On the other hand, there is some truth in the idea that acting positive tends to foster feeling positive – but that’s not about kidding yourself or others, it’s more about developing positive habits to give yourself a boost.


  10. icyjumbo | 20 January 2010 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    That sounds as though we’re in violent agreement. That makes me quite happy.

    Glad Abby was winding you up. The alternative was worse.