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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

Learned Optimism

A "can do" attitude leads to success in bodybuilding -- and life

Q.  My son Gary and I just finished rebuilding the engine on a 1985 Buick.  I'd like to tell you about it because it relates to your writings -- and bodybuilding.  

    We both have worked on engines before, but neither of us had tackled one of the new computer-controlled front-wheel-drive engines before.  When we opened the hood, it looked like a plat of spaghetti - there were so many wires, hoses and assorted thingamajigs.  Most people would have thought it was hopeless.  But we piled right in.

It took us four days to assemble and install the new parts.  The last hurdle was reprogramming the onboard computer.

The engine started right up.  With a few adjustments we had it running like new.

What does this have to do with bodybuilding?  Attitude.  How many people would have said, "No way."  Gary and I don't think that way, however.  The truth is, we can do almost anything if we believe we can.  This "can do" attitude is clearly evident in your articles and books.  That's why I'm so gung-ho about the bodybuilding lifestyle.

A.  You make a critical point.  In Learned Optimism (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)) Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., one of the world's leading authorities on motivation, presents scientific evidence that optimists get along better than pessimists in almost ever facet of life at school, at work, in personal relationships and in sports.  According to Seligman, optimists respond better to adversity of all kinds.  What's more, they have better physical health and may even live longer.  The key seems to be what we say to ourselves when we confront failure and disappointment, or a daunting task like rebuilding a car engine. 

Pessimists, according to Seligman, respond with helplessness; they give up.  Optimists, on the other hand, persevere.  Like you and your son, they assess the situation, and they act constructively.  Interestingly, our "explanatory style" - Seligman's term for the manner in which we explain setbacks to ourselves - affects our immune system; optimists have better immune activity than pessimists.

Most of us learn to be optimists or pessimists in childhood and adolescence, and then, for good or bad, we carry this basic attitude with us throughout life.  Happily, a negative explanatory cycle can be changed to positive.

Bodybuilding And Attitude

I agree with you that bodybuilding can play an important part in shaping one's attitude.  Let me tell you about the basic research done by Seligman and his colleagues on learned helplessness or optimism, and then how weight training played a pivotal role in shaping my own way of looking at life.

In 1965, Seligman, while a graduate student in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, performed the first experiment showing that animals can be taught helplessness.  One group of dogs was given escapable shock.  By pushing a panel with its nose, a dog in that group could turn off the shock.  The dog had control because it could escape the shock.  A second group of dogs was given exactly the same shocks as the first, but no response they made had any effect.  They had no control; they couldn't escape.  A third group was given no shocks at all.

Once the dogs went through the experiment, each was put in a large box with two compartments, separated by a low wall.  In the first compartment they received a shock, but they could easily escape the shock by jumping over the barrier into the other side of the box.

Within seconds the dogs that had been taught to control shocks discovered that they could jump over the barrier and escape.  The dogs that earlier had received no shocks discovered the same thing, also in a matter of seconds.  But the dogs who had found that nothing they did mattered made no effort to escape, even though they could easily see over the low barrier to the shockless zone of the box.

Those dogs just gave up and lay down, even thought they were being regularly shocked by the box.  They never found that they could easily escape.  Those dogs had learned that they had no control, that they were helpless.

Learned Helplessness

It turns out that learned helplessness has far-reaching effects.  In 1977, Madelon Visintainer, one of Seligman's graduate students, performed an experiment showing how mastery and helplessness affect health.  She put three groups of rats through the same shock experiment as Seligman had with the dogs, but with an important addition.  The day before the experiment she implanted a few cancer cells on each rat's flank.  Under normal conditions, 50% of the rats would reject the cancer cells and live.  As expected, 50% of the rats who were not shocked had died, and the other half had rejected the tumor.  Of the rats who were allowed to escape the shock by pressing a bar, the rate who had learned mastery, 70% rejected the tumor.  But only 27% of the helpless rats, the rats who had experienced uncontrollable shock, rejected the cancer cells.  In short Visintainer became the first person to demonstrate that the psychological state of helplessness produces a more rapid growth of cancer.  She also showed, of course, that the psychological state of mastery enhances the ability to reject the tumor.  And that's not all.  Visintainer went on to demonstrate that the rats who had experienced mastery when young were better protected against tumors as adults.

Learned Optimism

Seligman says it works the same way in humans.  Researchers at Yale found that elderly people in nursing homes were not only happier when they were given greater control over the daily happenings in their lives, but they also lived longer.  As noted earlier, optimists have better immune activity than pessimists.  For example, Seligman and his colleagues taught learned optimism to 40 cancer patients and produced a very sharp increase in the activity of natural killer cells, the cells that kill foreign invaders in the body, such a viruses, bacteria and tumor cells.

So the emphasis you and your son place on attitude is well founded.  Your view of bodybuilding, I believe, is correct as well.  I started lifting weights at 12 or 13, and I believe it gave me a positive outlook on life, an optimistic frame of reference that has persisted.

Weight training taught me that what I did counted, that I had the power to shape the course of my life.  I was small for my age and I think I felt a little inferior.  I wanted to change that, and I did.  I wanted to be as strong as -- no, stronger than -- my school buddies.  Through weight training, I not only caught up with my friends, I surpassed them.  As a junior I won the state high school pentathlon championship, a five-event contest consisting of push-ups, chin-ups, jump reach, bar vault and 300-yard shuttle run.  A short time later I became city, state, and regional champion in the Olympic lifts.  In short, weight training taught me that if I set realistic goals and worked hard, I would succeed.  Those early successes taught me that perseverance pays.  They set the pattern for the rest of my life, a pattern which has extended far beyond sports.  For instance, the stick-to-itiveness that I learned through weight training helped me graduate second in my class from a law school that flunked four out of five entering students.  And it has helped me in everything I've attempted since then.

Yes, you're right!  Bodybuilding is a can-do sport.  It does much more than build muscle and fitness.  It makes you an optimistic person, one who can bounce back from life's inevitable setbacks, again and again.

[This article is taken from the "Psychological Factors" chapter of The Lean Advantage 3.  Next month we will comment on Dr. Seligman's new book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment  -- especially as it relates to training, health and fitness.]

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