Forget Your Troubles, C'mon Get Happy!

by Barry Davis

"Forget Your Troubles" by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen was a Depression-era hit, later memorialized by both Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald. They urged listeners to "chase all your cares away"; but in the context of looking for employment, this sounds easier than it is. The job search is full of discouragement, rejection, and an abundance of "No's".

At first blush, "Get happy" just doesn't seem to cut it.

Actually, however, it is pretty good advice. Research by psychologist Martin Seligman (author of "Learned Optimism" and "Authentic Happiness") has shown that "getting happy" can actually be done. As a new graduate with a bachelor's degree in psychology in the '60s, Seligman assisted in behavioral research, observing animals to determine how they learned to avoid unpleasant situations. (But don't worry, the subjects were not hurt!) In brief, conditions were created where the animals were unable to avoid a stressful situation. Regardless of what they did, they experienced an unpleasant response. Eventually they would do absolutely nothing, since what they did changed nothing! This was described as "learned helplessness" − In humans, something we may call "pessimism." Seligman eventually started to wonder whether, if we can "learn" to be pessimistic, can we also "learn" to be optimistic, thus inspiring his first book, "Learned Optimism."

Now some of us seem to be naturally optimistic, able to see the glass as half full. I've always liked the comment of the comedian: I don't care if the glass is half empty or half full, I just want to know who was drinking it and do I have to pay for all of it? Quite honestly, these cheerful types have always annoyed me somewhat. Aren't they paying attention to what's happening? I naturally fall on the side of the pessimists. That approach just seems more realistic to me. Then, when things go wrong, I am either absolutely right ("I knew it wouldn't work!") or pleasantly surprised ("Wow! I didn't expect this!").

This mindset is not very successful, however. I speak from personal experience, backed up by Seligman and his research. He gives us three distinct dimensions for pessimism: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. Here is how they work.

Permanence means that when something goes wrong, it will stay wrong, never to correct itself. Learn to live with it, because it is here to stay. When you lose your job, it will affect you for the rest of your life.

Pervasiveness means that when something goes wrong, it's only the beginning. There is more to come, so you'd better get used to it. When one company does not return your calls, no one will.

Personalization means that when something goes wrong, you deserved it because of what you do or who you are. Don't expect anything nice to happen to you because you are not worthy of such an experience. They did not hire you because you are a rotten human being.

These statements sound over the top, yet many of us and our clients practice them regularly. And at Seligman's website, www.authentichappiness.org, one can register and complete an assessment to identify your scores on these factors, along with all sorts of other measures.

We don't want to stop here, however. Seligman, a major contributor to what he calls "Positive Psychology," offers a step-by-step approach to retooling our negativity, removing what Stuart Smalley (a.k.a. Al Franken of Saturday Night Live) calls "stinkin' thinkin'." To do this justice, one really should read Seligman's books; but here is the process in abbreviated form. The five steps memorably follow the alphabet: A-B-C-D-E.

A - Adversity: This is the offending event. I was just turned down for the job of my dreams.

B - Belief: My natural pessimistic response. I am not a good candidate, and will probably end up being a greeter at a large retail establishment.

C - Consequences: How my beliefs translate into actions. Since I am obviously not a serious candidate for any quality position, I might as well give up and take a paper route.

D - Disputation: Here is where the magic can start. My career counselor and I consciously challenge both B and C. Am I really a waste of space, with no real options? Seligman says that we need to learn to argue with ourselves. His "Learned Optimism" book gives practical guidance on how to do this.

E - Energization: This is where we turn the argument with ourselves into renewed action. Although I regret not getting the position, I'll find out why, improve my performance and redouble my efforts until I'm successful.

Of course there will be days when we just don't feel like doing it. That's normal, especially if one is a pessimist like me. Do it anyway, says Seligman. "Fake it until you make it." You can make a habit of practicing your new optimistic outlook, even if it isn't your natural style. I have done so myself! You and your clients are also very likely to be pleased with the results.

Barry L. Davis (MS, CTC), a founding member of LMA Systems, with over 20 years of experience in career counseling, business consulting, outplacement and performance training, has designed and implemented career and personal development programs for over 1,800 clients. Barry's business consulting includes planning and preparing with leadership prior to reduction in force announcements, designing and delivering personalized services for career continuation, and providing support to organizations and individuals through the process. He also collaborates in personnel development, helping organizations ensure that the right people are in the right positions for maximum performance and satisfaction. Barry developed "Career Online," LMA's specialized Internet site for career clients providing 24/7 access to information and support. Barry can be reached at: bdavis@lmaconsulting.cc; visit his website at www.lmaconsulting.cc.

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