While working with a depression support group it became apparent that many of the clients struggled with very negative ways of thinking about things and very negative ways of viewing the world. This was interesting to me, because I battled depression myself for years. I spent many years taking antidepressants without a significant relief from symptoms. I eventually decided to stop and pay attention to the negative thinking in my own head. As I researched it, I found it had a name: Learned Helplessness.
Learned helplessness is a concept developed by the psychologist, Martin Seligman. Seligman worked with dogs who were exposed to electrical shocks. Dogs who were allowed to push a button with their nose to stop the shocks learned to act to stop the shocks. Dogs who were unable to escape the shocks learned to do nothing and wait for it to abate. They gave up. The conditioning taught the latter group they were unable to help themselves.
This same behavior can be seen in some children and adults who endured traumatic childhoods. Children who grow up in households where the parents' behavior is erratic and harmful will eventually stop trying to figure out a coping mechanism and just hunker down and endure the violence. Imagine a child with a parent who is struggling with drug addiction. Sometimes mom is unconscious, sometimes violent, sometimes pleasant. The child never knows what they are going to get. And the mother's behavior with the child is heavily influenced by the drugs, not the child. What kind of behavior the mother displays depends on whether she; has drugs, is running out of drugs or is unable to get more drugs. None of this is in the child's control. And nothing the child tries to do to get the care they need from the mother will work if the mother is high from using drugs or raging because she can't find money to buy drugs. So the child learns not to try to change their mother's behavior, because their efforts are futile. Some of these children will space out or dissociate. Some, like Seligman's dogs, will hunker down in the house and just endure the mother's abuse. They learn they are helpless. They learn not to try to change anything.
As adults they often adopt the same coping behavior. They believe life is to be endured and feel they have no ability to act to change things. Life is an endurance test, a series of mishaps that must be endured. They can have a "Chicken Little" type of mentality, constantly feeling, "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" These folks often view themselves as too helpless, too incompetent or too depressed to change the events in their life. This creates a way of behaving and thinking that will result in pessimism and depression. If this is the problem, medications will have little effect. The problem is learned behavior, not biochemical.
Finding that medications will not help can be disheartening. But it can also be empowering. A learned behavior can be unlearned. The trick is to determine what the thinking is and learn how to think like a happier person does.
Seligman also studied naturally happy people and found the opposite of learned helplessness was learned optimism. Seligman studied the differences between people who were basically pessimistic and people who were naturally optimistic and found three primary differences in their thinking patterns: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. In a nutshell, optimistic people look at a failure as "I may have been thwarted at this goal (not their entire life), but it's a temporary setback (not a permanent failure) and it was just bad luck (nothing to do with them personally)".
|Learned Helplessness/Pessimism||Learned Optimism|
Believe bad events are permanent
Believe good events are temporary
Believe bad events are temporary
Believe good events are permanent
Failure in one area means is interpreted as meaning they are a failure in their entire life or as a person in general.
Success, or happiness, in one area does not spill over into other areas.
Failure in one area does not mean they are a failure as a person or a failure in their life.
Conversely, happiness in one arena may brighten all other areas.
Blame themselves for bad events.
Attribute good events to external factors, i.e. "luck".
Take credit for good events.
Blame bad events on external factors.
Some people would say the optimist's outlook is not entirely realistic, and they would be right. Research has shown that people struggling with depression more accurately assess the outcomes of events than people who are more optimist. Happier people tend to incorrectly assume that things will be all right when they won't.
In the end, happiness may be the result of a little bit of self delusion. But does that make it bad?