Learned Optimism

Learned optimism learned fast. I believe very much in the concept of learned optimism.

I got a chance to start over about 30 years ago, and am still muddling along, albeit with more health and contentment and wealth than I had then. (Cross your fingers on that last one, given our current economic woes).

I have tried out a whole bunch of tools that I thought might enhance the process, and some of them do.

If I have learned one thing, it is that I must repeat the words or thoughts that I want to have so that I get the feelings that I want, very frequently. (For example, "May this work be for the good of all, seen and unseen" or "the attitude is gratitude".

My human brain, with its human orienting response, will attend to a bunch of different sensory cues in very rapid succession, any of which can take me to my 'learned fears" from my childhood.

So paying attention to my thinking is a prerequisite for moving quickly through the process of learned optimism.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the book FLOW, reports that we process sensory data seven bits at a time and the shortest amount of time between seven bits and the next seven bits is 1/18th second. I take 1/10th second to blink my eyes, so I could be distracted from my learned optimism as frequently as 126 times per second.

So you begin to get a sense that paying attention to attention is very important for continuing learned optimism.

Paul Ekman,Ph.D. says that we respond to facial expressions perhaps as quickly as as 1/25th second.

Any of you who have ever walked into the house at the end of the day, and saw an angry scowl on your mates face, and instantly experienced the change in feelings that go with that experience can identify.

The Posit Science Brain Fitness folks are mentioning 1/45th second as the amount of time senior drivers need to train for using their new program.

The point is that I lose my learned optimism quickly, and should be prepared to get it back quickly, like the meditation folks say, I should be prepared to observe my thoughts and let them pass by.

Learned Optimism Through Biofeedback

As I read the positive psychology materials, I think that there is much more room for learning optimism, and I am somewhat surprised that the positive psychology folks have not advocated the use of tools like HeartMath, which is a biofeedback tool that leaves one feeling good, and helps us access the cooperative and affiliative brain in the heart.

Yes, the heart has a very sophisticated nervous system, a brain if you will, which can be trained to beat coherently, opening higher perceptual centers in the brain.

I can learn to feel very subtle shifts away from coherence or what I call learned optimism, and shift right back to my coherence very quickly.

The heart actually sends a huge amount of data to the head about emotions, and we would prefer those emotions to be positive, which is what the heart will provide if I cue it with, drum role please, deep breathing and a cognitive cue.

I use HeartMath as a life style tool, and as an management tool, when I have an emergency surge of unpleasant feelings.

How do I do that?

I picture my children's faces, and the image does not have to be tremendously detailed, and I place it inside my chest next to my heart.

My heart has learned that when I do this it is to change coherence, so my practice is literally teaching my body a new baseline, a very coherent baseline, which feels good, is very healthy, and sounds a lot like learned optimism to me.

After all, what we are training here is heart rate variability coherence, normally an unconscious process.

When you develop an expertise at cognitively managing your body in this way, how could you not be more confident about your ability to navigate life's up and downs with equanimity.

HeartMath. Step Away from Stress and Find Ease

In order to work on the next aspect of deep learned optimism, you will need to read this book,

Brainfit for Life

by Simon Evans,Ph.D. and Paul Burghardt,Ph.D.who are neuroscientists at the University of Michigan who write about the pillars of brain fitness and how those impact two recently discovered capacities of the human brain, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.

Neurogenesis is the growth of new brain cells every day, which migrate to the hippocampus where memories are formed if I do not kill those new neurons with too much stress hormones or booze, heaven forbid.

Neuroplasticity describes the way our neurons work to form new connections when challenged by novel learning experiences, and both those capacities can be enhanced, which enhances learned optimism.

Learning equals neuroplasticity.

So what enhances brain fitness?

Attending to lifestyle choices in these brain pillar areas, physical exercise, nutrition, including omega 3 fatty acid, sleep, stress management (see HeartMath), and novel learning experiences, which usually means learning a new instrument, a new language, or perhaps working with any of the computerized brain fitness programs to exercise different areas of the brain.

Sounds like physical exercise is a real cure all, works for depression and emotional and mental health, works for your cardiovascular health, and now here is evidence that physical exercise helps your brain stay fit.

If you are my age, you pay attention to how your brain is doing, and if there is research out there that says that using computerized brain fitness programs helps build cognitive reserve, which helps me function normally even though I have plaques in my brain, then I am going to engage in that brain fitness tool.

Please check the right sidebar for links to programs I have tried and recommend.

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