Liv McConnell
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Pie > cake.

Fifteen years ago, Martin E.P. Seligman — referred to by some as the father of positive psychology — began a study with one question in mind. Can resilience be taught? 

Over time and through a series of experiments, Seligman and his colleagues determined that the answer was yes, and that certain qualities helped predict resiliency. The biggest quality that resilient people had in common? Those who don’t give up, Seligman found, almost always had an “optimistic explanatory style” in their speech or writing. Essentially, resilient people “have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review. In other words, they were optimists. And Seligman believed that this sense of optimism and its accompanying resiliency wasn’t simply innate, but could be learned. 

That’s why he went on to found the Penn Resiliency Program at the University of Pennsylvania. The program has since been replicated in 21 diverse school settings, from the suburbs to inner-city Philadelphia and Beijing, and it instructs educators on how to both internally cultivate optimism and use it in their lesson plans. A version of the program has also since been adopted by the U.S. Army as a psychological fitness model for soldiers. Here’s a snapshot of how it works, as described by Seligman in the Harvard Business Review.

1. Building mental toughness.

This section of the course is based on Albert Ellis’s ABCD model, which Seligman as addressing the fact that C (emotional consequences) stem not directly from A (adversity) but from B (one’s beliefs about adversity). 

“The sergeants work through a series of A’s (falling out of a three-mile run, for example) and learn to separate B’s — heat-of-the-moment thoughts about the situation (“I’m a failure”) — from C’s, the emotions generated by those thoughts (such as feeling down for the rest of the day and thus performing poorly in the next training exercise),” he wrote. “They then learn D — how to quickly and effectively dispel unrealistic beliefs about adversity.”

It’s less about ignoring the reality of adversity, Seligman added, than it is about preventing yourself from internalizing those adversities. 

2. Building signature strengths.

The second portion of the soldiers’ psychological fitness program involves soldiers discussing certain questions in groups, like: “Which strengths have you developed through your military service? How do your strengths contribute to your completing a mission and reaching your goals? What are the shadow sides of your strengths, and how can you minimize them?”

3. Building strong relationships through positive communication.

Finally, drawing on the work of Shelly Gable, a psychology professor at UC Santa Barbara, program participants are shown examples of how when an individual “responds actively and constructively (as opposed to passively and destructively) to someone who is sharing a positive experience, love and friendship increase,” Seligman wrote. Showing models of effective praise is one way this is done. 

“When, for example, a sergeant mentions specifics (as opposed to saying something general like “Good job!”), his soldiers know that their leader was paying attention and that the praise is authentic,” he wrote. 

Ultimately, by “enhancing mental toughness, highlighting and honing strengths, and fostering strong relationships,” Seligman said the brain can be rewired in a way that holds more space for optimism and resilience and less space for negativity and feelings of helplessness. 

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