How learned optimism could help you to lose weight

Seligman experiment with dogs, learned helplessness
In January 1965, a young American psychologist called Martin Seligman was about to turn the dominant psychological theory of the time, behaviourism, on its head. After the chance observation of a colleague’s experiment, he formed the hypothesis that dogs could learn helplessness if they were put in a situation where their actions proved to be futile. If this was true, and could then be applied to humans, Seligman realised that the implications for treating depression and improving people’s health could be enormous. He set up the following experiment using three dogs to test his hypothesis:
 
The first dog was put in a box from which it could escape and exposed to electric shocks. The second dog was put in a box from which it could not escape and exposed to identical shocks. The third dog was put in a box in which it didn’t receive any shocks. The next day, the same dogs were put in boxes that they could easily escape from and shocks were administered to all of them. Both the dog that had been able to previously escape and the dog that hadn’t received any shocks were able to escape within a few seconds. But the dog that had learnt that his efforts to escape were in vain just lay down and accepted the shocks, even though he could see there was only a low barrier stopping him from jumping to the other side. He had learnt to be helpless.
 
People learn to be helpless too
Seligman went on to repeat the experiment with people, but using annoying loud noise instead of electric shocks. The results were the same – the individuals whose efforts to turn off the noise had been futile made no attempt to turn it off when they were exposed to it again.
 
He realised that if people could be taught to be helpless when confronted with a trivial annoyance such as noise, then perhaps they were also learning to be helpless in the real world when they were faced with other situations in which they felt their actions were futile: when they experienced loss, rejection, failure at work, failure on a diet, etc. Perhaps, as he had initially suspected, human reaction to adversity in general could be explained by the learned helplessness model. 
 
It matters how you explain why bad stuff happens
After collaborating with another psychologist, John Teasdale, Seligman came to understand that some people are more prone to learned helplessness than others because of how they habitually explain to themselves why events happen. He called this your explanatory style and observed that an optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style breeds helplessness.
 
He identified three crucial dimensions to explanatory style: permanence (permanent or temporary), pervasiveness (universal or specific) and personalisation (internal or external).
 
If someone who has an optimistic explanatory style is trying to lose weight and they inevitably hit a plateau at some stage, how they explain this adversity to themselves can be crucial in determining if they continue to make progress or not. If the person concludes that they’ve reached a plateau for permanent, universal and internal reasons, it’s easy to see how they will become demotivated and helpless in the face of the challenge:
 
a) ‘It’s my genetics, I can’t lose any more weight’ (permanent)
b) ‘Diets never work’ (universal)
c) ‘I’ve got no will power, I’m such a failure’ (internal)
 
However, if the same person, when faced with the same challenge, uses an optimistic explanatory style, it’s likely the adversity will be perceived as a temporary setback and no enthusiasm will be lost:
 
a) ‘I’m happy that I’m able to just maintain my weight at the moment because I’m going through a very stressful period at work. I can get back to focusing more carefully on my nutrition when things calm down next week’ (temporary)
b) ‘It’s normal to hit a plateau when you’re losing weight. I need to pay closer attention to everything I’m eating and drinking to make sure I continue to achieve a calorie deficit’ (specific)
c) ‘Ok, so I had a burger and fries for dinner. There wasn’t anything else available and it was a one-off. I can get back to sensible nutrition tomorrow (external).
 
It also matters how you explain why good stuff happens
People who believe good events have permanent causes try even harder after they succeed. But people who only see temporary reasons for good events are more likely to give up even when they succeed, believing success was just a fluke. If someone trying to lose weight loses 1kg in a week, how they explain this positive event to themselves will impact their next encounter with adversity on their weight loss journey. Consider the following contrasting explanatory styles:
 
– ‘I did well this week, I’m successful when I put my mind to something.’ (permanent and internal)
– ‘It’s probably just water weight anyway. I bet I put it back on again next week.’ (temporary and external)
 
It’s important to remember that there’s never only one cause for any event. There are always myriad causes and we have the ability to focus on any of these. In this case, even if most of the weight lost was only water weight, if you give yourself recognition for the positive changes you have made, and even better, link these to a permanent, positive characteristic about yourself, you will feel more energised when you face your next (inevitable) challenge, which in turn will make you more likely to overcome it.
 
This doesn’t mean that you have to embrace unbridled positive thinking in order to lose weight. It just means that if you can identify the negative patterns of thought that may be stopping you from losing weight, it’s possible to challenge and change these beliefs, which in turn will change how you feel, and subsequently act. This is the essence of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which has been proven to help cure depression (which in Seligman’s opinion, is a more profound version of pessimism). CBT works specifically by making patients more optimistic and providing them with the tools that they can use again and again without having to rely on drugs or doctors.
 
The case for and against pessimism
It’s generally understood that our brains are hard-wired by evolution to be naturally more pessimistic. This makes sense when we look at our evolutionary past in which death was imminent at pretty much every turn, whether via a predator, starvation, or the climate. Our ancestors survived because they had the ability to worry incessantly about the future. It’s unlikely any of us would be here today if they were skipping through the forest thinking ‘Isn’t this beautiful? Today is going to be great!’ It’s far more likely that they were making negative predictions about their food running out or becoming the dinner of the next sabre-tooth tiger they encountered.
 
In modern life there are still times when seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses isn’t necessarily going to solve all of our problems. And most of us would sleep better knowing that the airline pilots, business administrators or health and safety officers of this world had a more pessimistic attitude. Pessimism heightens our sense of reality and endows us with accuracy which makes averting disasters much more likely in high-risk situations.
 
However, with regard to personal well-being (including the ability to lose weight), the costs of pessimism seem to heavily outweigh the benefits:
– Pessimism promotes depression
– Pessimism produces inertia rather than activity in the face of setbacks
– Pessimism feels bad subjectively—blue, down, worried, anxious
– Pessimism is self-fulfilling
– Pessimists don’t persist in the face of challenges, and therefore fail more frequently—even when success is attainable (remember the dog on his back, above)
– Pessimism is associated with poor physical health 
– Pessimists catastrophize
 
Becoming more optimistic
‘The good news is that pessimists can learn the skills of optimism and permanently improve the quality of their lives. Even optimists can benefit from learning how to change. Almost all optimists have periods of at least mild pessimism, and the techniques that benefit pessimists can be used by optimists when they are down.
–Martin Seligman
 
The first step is seeing the connection between adversity, belief and consequence (ABCs). The next step is to see how the ABCs operate every day in your own life.
 
We all have a perpetual dialogue going on in our minds that we’re mostly unaware of. It’s a question of tuning into this and observing what we think and then what we feel when we’re faced with any adversity, however small. For example, you’ve worked a long day, are hungry but you know you’ve got no food at home so you go out and have pizza and a couple of beers with a colleague.
 
Adversity: ‘I was hungry and ended up not sticking to my nutrition plan’
Belief: ‘I’ve ruined my diet
Consequence: ‘I felt bad. I ate the chocolate cake too to make myself feel better.
 
If you make a diary of about five of these you will begin to see patterns between the adversity you face and your consequent feelings. Your feelings are real and the adversity you face is real. What may not be so real, when examined objectively, is the belief that you have which led to your feelings. In this case, if you count up the approximate number of calories you consumed during the meal it would probably only come to two or three hundred more than you would have usually had. This would obviously be a problem if you did this every day, but if it’s is a one-off then over the course of a normal week where you’re complying with basic healthy nutrition habits most of the time, this will have little if any impact at all on your weight. The impact only becomes big when you believe (falsely) that you’ve ruined all your progress so you may as well continue to ruin it by having the chocolate cake too. Then you wake up the next day feeling like a failure and the vicious cycle continues. 
 
The bottom line is, if we have unchecked patterns of negative thought, we usually end up feeling bad about ourselves and go on to feel daunted by whichever mountain we’re trying to climb. But if we examine these beliefs objectively, and are able to find other more positive (and still truthful) explanations to give ourselves, we will end up feeling better more of the time, and as a result, more able to take the next step up the mountain.
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