Spreading optimism around the world (anytime)

February 14, 2009

About 18 months ago, when S. was just over a year old, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Although I recovered fully and quickly with the help of medication, the experience left me highly attuned to my thought patterns so I could better monitor when they were healthy and when they weren’t. Since then, I’ve started to read books like “Learned Optimism” by Martin E. P. Seligman, a world-renowned expert in the field of positive psychology. I’ve been particularly impressed by his book “The Optimistic Child,” which I’d recommend to anyone with a child age 8 or older. Even if your child seems happy enough and resilient enough and optimistic enough, it does no harm to be informed of what the warning signals of childhood depression are and to have tools to fend it off should the need arise.

In fact, although M. is only going on 6, I’ve been using some of the book’s subtle guidance with him. He tends to seek help for tasks he could probably accomplish himself with a little effort, and although that sounds innocuous, his smiling reliance on others to do what he could himself may set him up in the long term to seek crutches rather than tackle hard challenges. Or it may not. I don’t know, but I do know the book has convinced me to step up my vigilance on personality traits like that, and also to pay attention to the way all the members of our family talk about adversity. I’m quite sold on the program the book puts forward — and I’m not alone. This past year, Seligman spent much time in Australia, centered around Geelong Grammar School (you can find more info at its homepage, and also through a basic Google search). Most Australian primary schools use his approach to teach students resilience, and he’s focusing on training public school teachers there in the coming year.

If you’re curious but don’t want to shell out for the books, check the library or the homepage of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman concentrates most of his writing on scientifically proven programs, but the last chapter of “The Optimistic Child” is a more autobiographical section about insights he gained from his own preschool children. If you have a very little one, read it first — it’s a great intro to his ideas.

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