Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Optimism and Pessimism: Approaching Sense and Sensibility through Cognitive Therapy

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Optimism and Pessimism: Approaching Sense and Sensibility through Cognitive Therapy

Article excerpt

IN SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood undergo similar experiences of disappointment in love, but their responses are radically different. As Marilyn Butler notes, the novel "directs the reader's attention not towards what [the two sisters] experience, but toward how they cope with experience" (184). In her depiction of Elinor's and Marianne's coping styles Austen comments on beliefs and trends of the late eighteenth century, but she also anticipates current psychological theory and practice. The two Dashwood sisters reflect major principles of cognitive therapy as they illustrate the behaviors and thinking habits that either contribute to depression in Marianne's case or prevent it in Elinor's. Cognitive therapy is an approach to treating depression developed by Aaron T. Beck and others beginning in the 1960s. According to this theory, what was previously considered "a symptom of depression--negative thinking--is the disease," and it is most effectively treated by training individuals to alter their thinking styles (Seligman, Learned Optimism 73).

As psychologist Martin Seligman explains, people's mood or outlook is shaped by their way of explaining life events, especially the disappointments and misfortunes to which all are subject. Pessimists tend to explain misfortunes as permanent--they will last forever; pervasive--they will affect one's entire life; and personal--the individual is responsible and therefore views herself as incompetent, unlovable, or otherwise flawed. The result is a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and low self-esteem. People with an optimistic explanatory style, by contrast, regard losses and problems as temporary; they view them as affecting one aspect of their lives but not all; and they blame external factors such as circumstances, bad luck, or other people for their problems. As a result, they retain hope and self-esteem and are motivated to seek creative solutions to adverse conditions. [1]

Pessimists also tend to ruminate or mull over their disappointments and setbacks, thereby intensifying and prolonging their dysphoric states, whereas optimists distract themselves from disturbing thoughts. Studies indicate that one of the major reasons women suffer from depression more than men is that women tend to brood over and analyze their problems, whereas men are more likely to distract themselves with activity or even drinking. [2] Solitude also encourages rumination and depression whereas interacting with other people provides not only distraction but also comfort through a supportive network of relationships. In fact, psychologists often blame a rise in individualism and decline in family and community ties for an increase of depression in the late twentieth century. As Austen recognized, however, the modern focus on individual rights and subjective experience and a corresponding rise in melancholy began to develop in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These are in fact among the characteristics of sensibility Austen addresses in her first novel; Marianne, with her hatred of commonplace remarks, rejection of traditional decorum, and fondness for solitary walks, is an adherent of the new philosophy of individualism. [3]

A pessimistic explanatory style not only fosters sadness and lethargy but can also contribute to poor health or even death. The reasons may include the fact that depressed people don't take good care of themselves or seek medical treatment when they are ill. In addition, a prolonged sense of helplessness and hopelessness seems to weaken the immune system. Numerous examples have been documented of optimistic, hopeful individuals who survive serious illnesses whereas depressed, isolated people with similar diagnoses do not. [4]

A major principle of cognitive therapy is that people can change their thinking habits and behaviors and learn "the skills of optimism" to ward off depression when misfortune strikes. Therapy involves teaching patients either to distract themselves from their negative thoughts or, more effectively, to dispute them by challenging extreme, distorted assumptions and learning to focus on "the changeable," "the specific," and the "nonpersonal" as well as to identify and question the underlying core beliefs or "icebergs" that govern pessimistic thinking (Seligman, Learned Optimism 207,222; Seligman, Flourish 168). …

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