Train your optimism muscle

In 1967, two behavioural psychologists, Martin Seligman and Steven Maier, conducted the following experiment to research animal behaviour: they put dogs in an enclosure without a roof and subdivided into two parts by a low wall. The floor on the one half of the enclosure emitted light electric shocks – just enough to be unpleasant to encourage the dogs to jump over the wall to the other side of the enclosure to escape. The dogs did just that. In another part of the experiment they strapped some dogs into a harness and repeated the experiment. At first, the dogs tried to jump away to avoid the shock; but since they were strapped into the harness, they could not escape. Later, even when these dogs were released from their harness and given the possibility of jumping over the wall and escaping from the shock, these dogs laid down and passively accepted the shock treatment without even trying to escape. This is a heart-breaking image. These dogs had learned that nothing that they did would allow them to escape from the shock treatment —so they gave up even trying. This type of behaviour is called ‘learned helplessness.’ Learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and ultimately stops trying to change his/her circumstances, even when it is possible to do so. They simply stop trying to change their situation.

This also explains why people tend to stay in abusive relationships, or why people find it so hard to give up smoking. After trying everything, they come to believe that nothing they do will help, and therefore they stop trying altogether. They feel that they have no control and thus become passive. This feeling of helplessness can lead to depression and anxiety because someone may believe that nothing will end their suffering, so they completely stop seeking help. Learned helplessness typically manifests as a lack of self-esteem, low motivation and low perseverance, which then reinforces their belief that they are inept, and a failure. Times are tough at the moment, and many people feel that they have no control over their lives. They feel overwhelmed, drained, and lack the energy to keep on trying. They feel helpless and buy into it.

There is good news though.

Seligman later did a bold revision of his theory and came up with what he calls ‘learned optimism’, which can have huge implications for how we understand ourselves. According to him, we become victims of learned helplessness because of a mistaken belief that we should be able to handle life’s knocks, because we all have this inherent ability. Not so, says Seligman. As babies, we are all initially helpless. Feeling helpless and out of control is our default state.Taking control of our lives and developing hopeful feelings is something that we must learn and practice and protect within ourselves. We must learn to take control of our lives rather than trying to control life. When we are in control of our lives, we can dust ourselves off when we are knocked down, and we can try again and again, because we refuse to see ourselves as helpless. The truth is that every hard knock we survive instils within us a sense of achievement and hopefulness. Over time, our self-confidence and self-belief become so strong that the word ‘helplessness’ disappears from our vocabulary. Then optimism becomes our natural way of being, because we have freed ourselves from the harness of helplessness.

This is something that all parents should take seriously. An important role of parenting and education is to teach kids to take control of their own lives, to see their problems as surmountable, so that, by the time they are adults, they see themselves as the determiners of their own destiny and not as helpless victims. We do not simply fail children through neglect or abuse — we can also fail them by preventing them from ever facing the world. Molly-coddling, suffocating, and over-protecting our children is the breeding ground for learned helplessness and passivity. Instead, we need to allow and even encourage them to enter the school of hard knocks. When they are knocked down, we can then help them to get up and allow them to try again and again, watching with delight how their optimism grows.

I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’

Colum McCann

If this article perhaps triggered some reaction in you that you want to discuss in a coaching session you are most welcome.

Click here for more information.