what you can and can't change by martin seligman book summary and review

What You Can Change and What You Can’t by Martin Seligman Book Summary

When it comes to living a life free of unnecessary stress and anxiety that hold you back, you can’t dwell on what you can’t change. If you don’t have the ability to change something, then worrying about it will only make you more sad and limit your potential.

For example, if a man can’t change his height but can improve his work ethic, feeling sad about his height and dwelling about that all the time as the reason you can’t get girls will only make you enjoy life less and make you suffer more.

However, he can focus on learning how to work harder, which can improve his wealth, fashion, appearance, physique, social intelligence, and empathy — all areas that improve his attraction to get him girls.

But what can we change and what can we not change? Nowadays, there are a lot of different opinions on where to draw the line from gurus on social media and blogs.

Let’s turn to the most credible sources in science. Martin Seligman is one of the most famous and respected scientists in the self help movement for pioneering the field of positive psychology. His short book, What You Can and Cannot Change, exposes the truth behind the myths out there.

I learned some incredible stuff about what you can and cannot change, as well as some credible truth about basic psychology from the book:

Here’s what can be changed:

  • Mood.
  • Panic.
  • Optimism.
  • Premature ejaculation.
  • Depression (by straightforward conscious thinking and medication, not by insights into childhood).

Here’s what can’t be changed:

  • Homosexuality or androgyny.
  • Changing your body in the long run with dieting (This is a controversial one I find hard to swallow, as I’ve seen some great transformations on Instagram — @theirongiantess @chynacho @kelskiel @rp_transformations. But Martin points to longitudinal studies and points out how people return to the original body shapes after a diet).
  • Depression through insights into childhood alone.
  • Undoing adult personality problems through reliving childhood trauma (Again, Martin cites studies disproving this technique as an effective form of therapy. In fact, reliving the past abuse trauma retards your recovery.).

Another fascinating lesson in the book were the three principles of biological psychiatry. These principles are:

  • Personality is determined by genes.
  • Mental illness is really physical illness.
  • Emotion and mood are determined by brain chemistry.

When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Your mental mind isn’t just something magical you can’t touch or see — it exists in a way that can be supported by physics and math. Everything has a reason. There’s literal physical material and chemistry happening right now in your head that is allowing your mind to think and function.

How do you identify people with room for improving their mental health?  The 3 horsemen of mental illness are:

  1. Anger
  2. Anxiety
  3. Depression

Everyone gets angry sometimes so the first one for me was a bit confusing. This reminds me of the dark triad, which is a list of 3 personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) used in psychology and other areas to identify people who will likely do bad things.

Treating Anxiety

There are two effective techniques for anxiety reduction:

  1. Loosen each muscle of your body (relaxation) twice a day.
  2. Regular meditation with a mantra – twice a day, done religiously.

Doing both has proven to be more effective than doing one alone.


There are two types of Depression:
Unipolar – no manic episodes, more common, often resulting from worrying about the future or past and feeling sad about it.
Bipolar – manic, little sleep, grandiosity, more heritable from genetics.

When depressed, the way you think is different. Small obstacles seem like insurmountable barriers. You have an endless supply of reasons why each of your successes are failures.
Your mood is bad: awful, sad, despair.

Treating Depression

There are only four therapies for Depression that have proven to work with rigorously testing:

  1. Drugs (has side effects)
  2. Electroconvulsive therapy (has side effects)
  3. Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)
  4. Cognitive therapy (CT)

All work to the same extent: moderately well. Beware of any other treatments.

On Anger

Anger exists in human for a reason. It has helped our ancestors survive in their ancestral environments. But there are pros and cons to anger in modern life:

Pros: Gives you super human strength (though we rarely have a need for this in the modern world unless you’re an athlete).
Cons: You make horrible decisions or behave in a way you will regret.

Myths about anger and how to deal with it

Studies have found that expressing anger makes you more hostile, not less.

Keep an anger diary and write down your observations to these questions:

  • What set it off?
  • Do people like you less?
  • Does it go away quickly?

Get on top of your patterns.

Anger has three parts:

  1. Thought.
  2. Feeling.
  3. Behavior.

Each area should be treated.

First, count to ten and challenge your thoughts.

Change from ego orientation to task orientation.

Visualize yourself as a bomb disposer diffusing a bomb.

The anatomy of successful therapy

All successful therapy has two commonalities:
1) It’s forward looking.
2) It requires assuming responsibility.

Therapy focused on always looking at the past and childhood without focusing on the here and now has always been proven to ineffective for over a century.

Now, I have a question for you. What have you failed to assume responsibility for that you should? How can you fix that?

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