Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

( 19 )


You can significantly improve your life — starting today — with the power of
Learned Optimism
In this groundbreaking national bestseller, Martin E.P. Seligman shows you how to chart a new approach to living with "flexible optimism." Drawing from more than twenty years of clinical research, Dr. Seligman outlines easy-to-follow techniques that have helped thousands of people rise above pessimism and the ...

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You can significantly improve your life — starting today — with the power of
Learned Optimism
In this groundbreaking national bestseller, Martin E.P. Seligman shows you how to chart a new approach to living with "flexible optimism." Drawing from more than twenty years of clinical research, Dr. Seligman outlines easy-to-follow techniques that have helped thousands of people rise above pessimism and the depression that accompanies negative thoughts and build a life of rewards and lasting happiness. Learned Optimism shows you how to:

  • recognize your "explanatory style" — what to say to yourself when you experience set-backs — and how it influences your life
  • boost your mood and your immune system — with healthful thoughts
  • help your children to practice the thought patterns that encourage optimism
  • break the "I-give-up" habit with Dr. Seligman's ABC techniques
  • change your interior dialogue and experience the astonishing positive results

An esteemed psychologist demonstrates that by retraining our thinking habits, we can develop an optimistic outlook and achieve the happiness and success that may be missing from our lives.

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  • Learned Optimism
    Learned Optimism  

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Vaulted me out of my funk. . . . So, fellow moderate pessimists, go buy this book." — The New York Times Book Review”One of the most important books of the century—an absolute must-read for all persons interested in genuinely understanding and helping our fellow human beings.” —Dr. Robert H. Schuller, author of Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do "Dr. Seligman makes an optimistic case for optimism: you can learn it, you can measure it, you can teach it, and you will be healthier and happier for it.” —Dr. Aaron T. Beck, author of Love is Never Enough“A system for reforming the most entrenched pessimist.” —Philadelphia Daily News
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781442341135
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Publication date: 2/8/2011
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Abridged
  • Sales rank: 244,697
  • Product dimensions: 5.68 (w) x 5.04 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., the Robert A. Fox Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, works on positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, ethnopolitical conflict, and optimism. Dr. Seligman's work has been supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. He is the director of the Positive Psychology Network and scientific director of Foresight, Inc., a testing company that predicts success in various walks of life.
He was for fourteen years the Director of the Clinical Training Program of the University of Pennsylvania and was named a "Distinguished Practitioner" by the National Academies of Practice. In 1995, he received the Pennsylvania Psychological Association's award for "Distinguished Contributions to Science and Practice."

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Read an Excerpt

Learned Optimism

By Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

Random House

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400078393

Chapter One


Two Ways of Looking at Life

THE FATHER is looking down into the crib at his sleeping newborn daughter, just home from the hospital. His heart is overflowing with awe and gratitude for the beauty of her, the perfection.

The baby opens her eyes and stares straight up.

The father calls her name, expecting that she will turn her head and look at him. Her eyes don't move.

He picks up a furry little toy attached to the rail of the bassinet and shakes it, ringing the bell it contains. The baby's eyes don't move.

His heart has begun to beat rapidly. He finds his wife in their bedroom and tells her what just happened. "She doesn't seem to respond to noise at all," he says. "It's as if she can't hear."

"I'm sure she's all right," the wife says, pulling her dressing gown around her. Together they go into the nursery.

She calls the baby's name, jingles the bell, claps her hands. Then she picks up the baby, who immediately perks up, wiggling and cooing.

"My God," the father says. "She's deaf."

"No she's not," the mother says. "I mean, it's too soon to say a thing like that. Look, she's brand-new. Her eyes don't even focus yet."

"But there wasn't the slightest movement, even when you clapped as hard as you could."

The mother takes a book from the shelf. "Let's read what's in the baby book," she says. She looks up "hearing" and reads out loud: " 'Don't be alarmed if your newborn fails to startle at loud noises or fails to orient toward sound. The startle reflex and attention to sound often take some time to develop. Your pediatrician can test your child's hearing neurologically.'

"There," the mother says. Doesn't that make you feel better?"

Not much," the father says. "It doesn't even mention the other possibility, that the baby is deaf. And all I know is that my baby doesn't hear a thing. I've got the worst feeling about this. Maybe it's because my grandfather was deaf. If that beautiful baby is deaf and it's my fault, I'll never forgive myself."

'Hey, wait a minute," says the wife. 'You're going off the deep end. We'll call the pediatrician first thing Monday. In the meantime, cheer up. Here, hold the baby while I fix her blanket. It's all pulled out."

The father takes the baby but gives her back to his wife as soon as he can. All weekend he finds himself unable to open his briefcase and prepare for next week's work. He follows his wife around the house, ruminating about the baby's hearing and about the way deafness would ruin her life. He imagines only the worst: no hearing, no development of language, his beautiful child cut off from the social world, locked in soundless isolation. By Sunday night he has sunk into despair.

The mother leaves a message with the pediatrician's answering service asking for an early appointment Monday. She spends the weekend doing her exercises, reading, and trying to calm her husband.

The pediatrician's tests are reassuring, but the father's spirits remain low. Not until a week later, when the baby shows her first startle, to the backfire of a passing truck, does he begin to recover and enjoy his new daughter again.

THIS FATHER and mother have two different ways of looking at the world. Whenever something bad happens to him-a tax audit, a marital squabble, even a frown from his employer-he imagines the worst: bankruptcy and jail, divorce, dismissal. He is prone to depression; he has long bouts of listlessness; his health suffers. She, on the other hand, sees bad events in their least threatening light. To her, they are temporary and surmountable, challenges to be overcome. After a reversal, she comes back quickly, soon regaining her energy. Her health is excellent.

The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do. and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

These two habits of thinking about causes have consequences. Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and college, at work and on the playing field. They regularly exceed the predictions of aptitude tests. When optimists run for office, they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually good. They age well, much freer than most of us from the usual physical ills of middle age. Evidence suggests they may even live longer.

I have seen that, in tests of hundreds of thousands of people, a surprisingly large number will be found to be deep-dyed pessimists and another large portion will have serious, debilitating tendencies toward pessimism. I have learned that it is not always easy to know if you are a pessimist, and that far more people than realize it are living in this shadow. Tests reveal traces of pessimism in the speech of people who would never think of themselves as pessimists; they also show that these traces are sensed by others, who react negatively to the speakers.

A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes ("Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better"), but by learning a new set of cognitive skills. Far from being the creations of boosters or of the popular media, these skills were discovered in the laboratories and clinics of leading psychologists and psychiatrists and then rigorously validated.

This book will help you discover your own pessimistic tendencies, if you have them, or those of people you care for. It will also introduce you to the techniques that have helped thousands of people undo lifelong habits of pessimism and its extension, depression. It will give you the choice of looking at your setbacks in a new light.

The Unclaimed Territory

AT THE CORE of the phenomenon of pessimism is another phenomenon- that of helplessness. Helplessness is the state of affairs in which nothing you choose to do affects what happens to you. For example, if I promise you one thousand dollars to turn to page 104, you will probably choose to do so, and you will succeed. If, however, I promise you one thousand dollars to contract the pupil of your eye, using only willpower, you may choose to do it, but that won't matter. You are helpless to contract your pupil. Page turning is under your voluntary control; the muscles that change your pupillary size are not.

Life begins in utter helplessness. The newborn infant cannot help himself, for he* is almost entirely a creature of reflex. When he cries, his mother comes, although this does not mean that he controls his mother's coming. His crying is a mere reflex reaction to pain and discomfort. He has no choice about whether he cries. Only one set of muscles in the newborn seems to be under even the barest voluntary control: the set involved in sucking. The last years of a normal life are sometimes ones of sinking back into helplessness. We may lose the ability to walk. Sadly, we may lose the mastery over our bowels and bladder that we won in our second year of life. We may lose our ability to find the word we want. Then we may lose speech itself, and even the ability to direct our thoughts.

The long period between infancy and our last years is a process of emerging from helplessness and gaining personal control. Personal control means the ability to change things by one's voluntary actions; it is the opposite of helplessness. In the first three or four months of an infant's life some rudimentary arm and leg motions come under voluntary control. The flailing of his arms refines into reaching. Then, to his parents' dismay, crying becomes voluntary: The infant can now bawl whenever he wants his mother. He badly overuses this new power, until it stops working. The first year ends with two miracles of voluntary control: the first steps and the first words. If all goes well, if the growing child's mental and physical needs are at least minimally met, the years that follow are ones of diminishing helplessness and of growing personal control.

Many things in life are beyond our control-our eye color, our race, the drought in the Midwest. But there is a vast, unclaimed territory of actions over which we can take control-or cede control to others or to fate. These actions involve the way we lead our lives, how we deal with other people, how we earn our living-all the aspects of existence in which we normally have some degree of choice.

The way we think about this realm of life can actually diminish or enlarge the control we have over it. Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues. For example, if we think we are helpless to make a difference in what our children become, we will be paralyzed when dealing with this facet of our lives. The very thought "Nothing I do matters" prevents us from acting. And so we cede control to our children's peers and teachers, and to circumstance. When we overestimate our helplessness, other forces will take control and shape our children's future.

Later in this book we will see that judiciously employed, mild pessimism has its uses. But twenty-five years of study has convinced me that if we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that misfortune is our fault, is enduring, and will undermine everything we do, more of it will befall us than if we believe otherwise. I am also convinced that if we are in the grip of this view, we will get depressed easily, we will accomplish less than our potential, and we will even get physically sick more often. Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling.

A poignant example is the case of a young woman I knew, a student at a university where I once taught. For three years her advisor, a professor of English literature, had been extremely helpful, almost affectionate. His backing, along with her high grades, had won her a scholarship to study at Oxford for her junior year. When she returned from England, her main interest had shifted from Dickens, her advisor's specialty, to earlier British novelists, particularly lane Austen, the specialty of one of his colleagues. Her advisor tried to persuade her to do her senior paper on Dickens, but seemed to accept without resentment her decision to work on Austen and agreed to continue as her co-advisor.

Three days before her oral examination, the original advisor sent a note to the examining committee accusing the young woman of plagiarism in her senior thesis. Her crime, he said, was failing to give credit to two scholarly sources for her statements about Jane Austen's adolescence, in effect taking credit for those perceptions herself. Plagiarism is the gravest of academic sins, and the young woman's whole future-her fellowship to graduate school, even graduation itself-was threatened.

When she looked at the passages the professor said she had failed to credit, she found that both had come from the same source-the professor himself. She had gotten them during a casual conversation with him, in which he had spoken of the perceptions as just his own thoughts on the matter; he had never mentioned the published sources from which he had obtained them. The young woman had been sandbagged by a mentor jealous of losing her.

Many people would have reacted with fury at the professor. Not Elizabeth. Her habit of pessimistic thinking took over. To the committee, she was certain, she would appear guilty. And, she told herself, there was no way she could prove otherwise. It would be her word against his, and he was a professor. Instead of defending herself, she collapsed inwardly, looking at every aspect of the situation in the worst possible light. It was all her own fault, she told herself. It really didn't matter that the professor had gotten the ideas from someone else. The main thing was that she had "stolen" the ideas, since she had failed to credit the professor. She had cheated, she believed; she was a cheat, and she probably always had been.

It may seem incredible that she could blame herself when she was so obviously innocent. But careful research shows that people with pessimistic habits of thinking can transform mere setbacks into disasters. One way they do this is by converting their own innocence into guilt. Elizabeth dredged up memories that seemed to her to confirm her extreme verdict: the time in seventh grade when she had copied test answers from another girl's paper; the time in England when she had failed to correct the misimpression of some English friends that she came from a wealthy family. And now this act of "cheating" in the writing of her thesis. She stood silent at her hearing before the examining committee and was denied her degree.

This story does not have a happy ending. With the washout of her plans, her life was ruined. For the past ten years she has worked as a salesgirl. She has few aspirations. She no longer writes, or even reads literature. She is still paying for what she considered her crime.

There was no crime, only a common human frailty: a pessimistic habit of thinking. If she had said to herself, "I was robbed. The jealous bastard set me up," she would have risen to her own defense and told her story. The professor's dismissal from an earlier teaching job for doing the same thing might have emerged. She would have graduated with high honors- if only she had had different habits of thinking about the bad events in her life.

Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think.

Excerpted from Learned Optimism by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Landmark Research Findings That Will Improve Your Life

    Seldom have I seen a book of such extraordinary timeliness that I knew I was witnessing history in the making, but such is the case with LEARNED OPTIMISM. As Seligman writes, '... the things we say to ourselves when trouble strikes can be just as baseless as the ravings of a drunk on the street. Our reflexive explanations are usually not based on reality. They are bad habits that emerge from the mists of the past...' This, in essence, gets to the heart of LEARNED OPTIMISM, as it turns out that we can radically improve our self talk during all times of disappointment. The key is to learn to dispute your first internal thoughts when you encounter setbacks. Seligman shares tips for how we can vault the walls we construct for ourselves... the ones that sometimes can stop us in our tracks right before we otherwise might have been met with spectacular success. I was thrilled to discover this extraordinary book on the subject of how we can address social and personal problems with hopelessness and depression by applying some of the most exciting findings from the field of psychology. When I took psychology classes at UC Berkeley, I was deeply impressed by studies I read about dogs that became helpless after experiencing situations they learned they had no control over. As it turns out, one of the researchers involved in these early studies, Martin Seligman, was deeply motivated to understand the root causes and possible solutions for helplessness and depression, because his father had suffered catastrophic strokes that prevented from him running for office and achieving his dreams. LEARNED OPTIMISM presents landmark research-based discoveries that not only have the power to dramatically improve your life, but also include tools you can utilize to assist others who suffer hopelessness and depression. What sets this book apart from all others is the extraordinary gift of hearing from one of the pioneers in psychology his cutting-edge ideas, research experiences, and tools for assessing and improving optimism. The significance and timeliness of this book is phenomenal, and Seligman's ability to explain why mere positive affirmations and self-esteem programs cannot help people learn optimism is priceless. There is cause for celebration in LEARNED OPTIMISM's central thesis that once optimism is learned, people have the power to overcome bouts of hopelessness or depression and become much more resilient 'can do' individuals who bounce back whenever facing problems in their lives. LEARNED OPTIMISM just might be one of the greatest findings of our time.... I give this book my highest recommendation!

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2006

    Overcome Depression Through Self-Delusion

    For the most part I consider this book a complete waste of time. The author takes forever to get to the point (which is How to Change Your Mind and Your Life) and when he finally does, his half baked philosophy is disappointing. He seems to think that self-delusion is the answer to what ails us. If we find something upsetting or that causes us to be depressed, just mentally conjure up an alternative reality for ourself and all will be well. Also, I really don't see the benefit of the author's rather arbitrary categorization of 'pessimism and optimism' regarding mental self-reflection. Shouldn't the primary focus be cognitive distortion itself? Isn't that the root cause, of mental anguish, which should really be addressed? Just because 'winners' in life are often delusional (as expounded by the author), that doesn't substantiate that delusion is an optimal way to live ones life. What of the long term effect on not only the individual but society itself? The author's pick and choose method of choosing when to be 'optimistic' or 'pessimistic' regarding events, strikes me as ludicrous, as well as unnecessarily complicating the issue. Why not just focus on a commitment to a rational assessment of the events of one's life? Isn't that in itself difficult enough, without creating artificial divisions, and delusions, in which to view events? If an accurate assessment makes a person feel bad, then that should be an indication that that event is a problem and a solution needs to be pursued. Placing problems into an 'optimistic' frame of reference may make a person feel better but it does nothing to address the underlying problem. If a person chooses to delude themselves as the author advocates, how is that creating an environment where future change is even possible? Are we to just live in a fantasy world while the troublesome events around us remain unchanged? Shouldn't the core of a persons cognition always strive to adhere to self-honesty as well as an accurate assessment of reality? I don't see how a sane person could think otherwise. Obviously, I really didn't get much, that was useful, from this book. The two books I've found helpful and would recommend are 'The Feeling Good Handbook' by David Burns and 'Power Therapy: Maximizing Health Through Self-Efficacy' by Michael Aleksiuk

    8 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2005

    Optimists Only Need Apply

    Roughly 80% of this book is dedicated to rehashing 20 years of clinical research proving the proposition that pessimists are more likely to be depressed and underachieve. Gee, do ya think??!! The title promises life changing advice that can be summed up as: when you think something negative, stop, realize this and try to disprove the negative thought. After wading through a couple of hundred pages, this pessimist felt duly brow-beaten. Upon finally reaching the sections suggesting how to change that thinking, I found them perfunctory and wholly without any of the scientific and statistical proof that filled the first 80% of the book. The title oversells the book and I can't for the life of me figure out how the other reviewers could laud this book.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2000

    Practical, scientifically-valid self-help.

    I recommend books often, and this book is the one I recommend most. It is practical information everyone should know about. No matter how optimistic you are already, if you became even more optimistic, you would feel better, you'd be healthier, and your ability to succeed would improve. These statements sound like hype, but there is plenty of scientific evidence to verify them, and quite a bit of that evidence can be found in this book. Early in the book, you'll find a questionnaire so you can discover not only how optimistic you are but in which of the six areas you are the LEAST optimistic, and Seligman tells you what you can do to change. It is not hard. It takes some diligence, but the principles are simple, and they work very well. I'm the author of the book, Self-Help Stuff That Works, and I'm an expert on self-help material. Seligman's book is at the top of my list.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2006

    Pros and cons of optimism and pessimism

    If you believe that optimism is the best way to live, you will be enlightened by this book. Seligman points out that optimism is less accurate than optimism, and that it shouldn't be used when the price of failure is high. Seligman discusses the advantages and disadvantages of optimism and pessimism, provides tests to see where you rate, and gives some good advice. What is lacking is a discussion about realism. I absolutely recommend Rosalene Glickman's best-selling book, Optimal Thinking: How To Be Your Best Self if you want to learn how to make the most of feelings, thoughts and situations.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2003


    This book is one of the cornerstones of my Emotional Intelligence (EQ) coaching. Optimism is, in fact, the facilitator of all the Emotional Intelligence competencies, and what allows us to fulfill our potential, and -- according to Seligman's research -- live longer, healthier, happier lives. Dr. Seligman gives clear, plain English instructions. He presents his theory and all his many years of research, builds the case, marshals his argument, and will leave you not only convinced that optimists have better lives and that you can learn it, but eager to begin the process. And he tells you exactly what to do! I've seen it change the life of a many a coaching client. 'Great book' is an understatement.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2002

    Still Good -- Needs Update on Constructive Pessimism

    This reprint edition of the original book is still good. It is based on research and theory by Dr. Seligman and other psychologists during the 1980s and earlier decades. So of course it is not up to date about the 1990s research findings limiting the benefits of optimism and demonstrating (for some people) the adaptive value of constructive pessimism. And the original optimistic bias of the American 'positive psychology' movement is now recognized by scholars such as Ed Chang to have been an overly one-sided, and thus unbalanced, theory. A good, very recent book with the new research and theory is "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking" by Julie Norem. Optimism is 51% effective, but for at least 33% of people it is a less adaptive strategy than constructive pessimism. No one-size-fits-all theory of psychological health works for human beings because individual and cultural differences are the real key. Everyone can benefit from looking at both sides of the optimism--pessimism dynamic.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2014

    What ive learned

    Sometimes the hardest times in life are the times you learn the most.

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  • Posted March 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Great Book

    This book is very interesting. Seligman talks about physcology expierments over the years and some of the results are very unexpected. The test in chapter 3 will open your eyes to whether you think optimistically or pessimistically. Towards the end of the book you will learn how to change to become an optimist. Very good book, that you can learn a lot from. Can help yourself, spouse, or child.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2006

    Pivotal book makes optimism achievable

    Despite equal talent and drive, it turns out that optimists will succeed where pessimists fear to tread. The good news is that you can learn optimism and lean on it to respond to adversity and inculcate greater resilience. Through descriptions of dozens of studies performed since the ¿70s, author Martin Seligman conveys the history and landscape that define 'positive psychology,' the science he helped to found. He offers cognitive techniques designed to tweak your natural disposition and give you the advantage of optimism. We recommend this book as a seminal work of positive psychology.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2005

    ABSOLUTELY a 'must read!'

    This is probably the first 'self-improvement' book that I've devoured from cover to cover; I couldn't wait to read more. Seligman's book makes complete sense. It's all so logical and easy to understand. This is also the first book that's made me want to do the exercises in it. Previous books, I'd skim the exercises and not really participate. This one compelled me to try out the examples. Not only that, but I'm already putting the ideas to work in my real life. I highly suggest this book - for pessimists and optimists alike!

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    Posted December 6, 2013

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    Posted September 27, 2010

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    Posted September 18, 2010

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    Posted November 7, 2013

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    Posted November 14, 2009

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    Posted May 1, 2010

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    Posted January 5, 2012

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    Posted November 13, 2013

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