There was an experiment conducted with dogs I remember reading about in one of my education classes in college. I’ve never forgotten about it because at the time, it struck me as cruel. The actual point of the experiment was lost in a jumble of sad puppy mental images and adolescent outrage, but now I wish I had read into it a little more. Researchers attached three groups of dogs to harnesses. Group 1 (let’s call them “Fido”) were harnessed for a while and then let go. Dogs from Group 2 (gets to be “Lucky”) and Group 3 (we’ll call them “Helpless”) were harnessed together in pairs. The scientists shocked each pair of dogs. Lucky had a lever that could stop the shocks…of course, Lucky learned to press the lever pretty quickly. His buddy, Helpless, had a lever too. But his lever did nothing. Helpless assumed that the jolts started and stopped randomly since it’s his buddy who had the working lever and was actually in control. When Lucky and Helpless are placed in a new experiment and merely have to jump down off a platform to avoid the shocks, Helpless doesn’t try to avoid them. He just lays down. Doesn’t even react to the electricity. The mental image is haunting.
Giving up because you’ve tried something and it didn’t work isn’t learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is when you fail at something (or have no control over something) and it causes you to believe you will fail (or have no control) in a new situation, too. For example, my husband is brilliant in math and science. Really. He once got a bad grade in a high school history class and from that point forward just assumed (his words) that he wasn’t an A student. He stopped putting forth any effort in the rest of his classes, and his grades suffered. I’ve seen people in my life try to lose weight, struggle with a diet that wasn’t right for them, and therefore assume that no diet will work. A child may try to play the trumpet, struggle, and then decide that they are no good at music. Who knows? Maybe that same child would have been an amazing pianist! Some days, all it takes is “waking up on the wrong side of the bed,” to keep someone from making the most of their day. Learned helplessness keeps people from seeing that with new circumstances or opportunities, that the outcome may be different.
The thing is, learned helplessness quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “I believe I can’t. So I don’t try. Because I didn’t try, I failed, so I was right all along.” Like Penrose steps, you end up right where you started. It’s a part of our DNA; our wiring. It’s not a personality fault – it’s a part of being human and we’re all susceptible.
For me, my learned helplessness came as I was in a huge transition in my life. I struggled with caring for my newborn daughter, buried in a deep postpartum depression and anxiety that left me hysterical if the bottle tops and bottoms weren’t the same color. After many months of therapy and lots of support, the worst of the depression lifted and I started enjoying my baby. But that period of chaos left a pretty big dent in my spirit. I believed somewhere deep down that because I had been out of control that I would never be myself again. So I stopped trying. I lived in a kind of daze…went on medications and then off of them because I couldn’t commit to getting better. I stopped asking for help; stopped talking to my family about what was going on. My anxiety would spiral wildly, unchecked. I am so thankful for the amazing therapist who pushed me through the daze. She helped me find small ways to feel successful and in control. So that little by little I believed again that I could be me. Once you see the helplessness for what it is, you can’t unsee it. If you can push past the sense of powerlessness, and try anyway, the helplessness loses its control over you. I often hear depression survivors talk about the importance of “faking it.” Of putting on a happy face and getting out in the world despite the crushing darkness. This makes so much sense to me – they’re not letting learned helplessness get the best of them.
All of this got me thinking…if our brains can be conditioned into believing that we are helpless, can they be conditioned into believing that we are happy? Can happiness in one area of our life infect other areas? And if so, can we nuture the little seeds of happiness so that they may grow and spread roots throughout our lives? I hope so. And I plan to find out.