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What You Can Change and What You Can't

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What You Can Change and What You Can't

The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement

Vintage Books,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Text available

What's inside?

Sometimes, the best way to deal with depression and other negative emotional states is to accept them – and move on.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Applicable


The self-improvement industry spends billions to convince people that their psychological and physical problems are fixable. The magazine covers at the checkout counter extol the latest miracle diet, but most of the people in line with you are overweight. Seasoned mental-health professional and former president of the American Psychological Association, Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., has bad news for the seriously overweight: Diets don’t work. Plus, he tells alcoholics and people with deep-seated emotional afflictions, there are no definitive cures for them. He notes, however, that a large minority of alcoholics do recover, though no approach is guaranteed. Seligman, whose views have generated both gratitude and controversy, details which psychological problems are treatable and which are not. His candid attitude is laudable and his advice seems well-informed, if perhaps generalized. If you’ve gotten thin, you’ve beaten the odds. Meanwhile, he recommends that people learn to live bravely with daunting emotional issues they cannot completely master – because, he says, mastery probably isn’t possible. getAbstract finds this treatise about what is and isn’t fixable both sobering and valuable.


One Cure for Psychological Problems: Courage

Are you depressed? Addicted? Obsessive? Anxious? Do you overeat? Do you suffer post-traumatic stress? Years ago, most therapists would try to use a Freudian, analytical approach not only to treat but also to cure such problems. But, with ever-rising medical insurance rates, this is seldom today’s treatment of choice. Instead, most current psychotherapeutic and pharmaceutical treatment deals with symptoms. Unfortunately, drugs and psychotherapies have an effectiveness rate of only about 65%. This is due, in part, to the fact that the majority of problem-causing personality traits have a high degree of heritability. Thus, most negative psychological problems can be only partially modified, not wholly eliminated.

This means that people who suffer from these mental afflictions must, in many cases, simply hope to learn to live courageously with their problems. Take heart: This is achievable. Very possibly, both Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were unipolar depressives. First, understand that some psychological problems may not be curable. Then, realize that people need courage to deal with such issues and rise above them...

About the Author

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is a psychology professor and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the former president of the American Psychological Association.

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