Learned Happiness

30 Jan

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.


2 Responses to “Learned Happiness”


  1. Depression and Anxiety Resources | Learned Happiness - November 17, 2013

    […] Learned Happiness – My original piece on how my depression created a cycle of learned helplessness and how I hope to break that cycle with this blog. Therapy – A post about how my attitude toward therapy changed during my treatment and why I believe it’s so important. Lows – Two steps forward and one step back.  Despite healing after my first bout with PPD, I found the lows returning and challenged them with all the self-care and depression tools I had. Health Activists Writer’s Monthly Challenge – The WEGO Health HAWMC post about what my anxiety is and feels like. Because I Can – Why I write about mental health. Mother’s Day Rally – The first time Katherine invited me to write for Postpartum Progress and I went all fangirl and freaked out.  You must read all the Mother’s Day Rally for Mental Health Letters to New Moms.  They are inspiring. Antental Depression Part One – I was seven weeks pregnant with Bean when I began having intrusive thoughts and felt my world collapsing around me. Antental Depression Part Two – Thank you to Postpartum Progress, the Mother’s Day Rally Letters, and Marlene Freeman at MGH.  This is where my life began to truly turn around. Rainy Day Letter – Yael Saar was kind enough to host me at PPD To Joy.  This is part of her Rainy Day Letter series.  The other letters?  Worth sitting down with.  Bring some kleenex. A Rough Couple of Weeks – On increasing medication mid-pregnancy and all the feelings that come with it. Dog Tired – On my pregnancy progress.  Evidence that with the right medication and therapy, a second pregnancy can be joyful. Invisible Wounds – Anxiety and depression are “invisible” to the outside world, but they are very real illnesses. Ready – Feeling ready for the second baby, prepared for possible PPD, and supported by my IRL and online army. Warning Signs – A post informing my friends and family what to look for after my second baby was born, written just before her arrival.  My PPD went unnoticed the first time around.  I believe the key to my health the second time around was being upfront and honest with my support network about what to look for and how to help me. Happy Birthday – The joyful arrival of Bean. Expectations – How lowering my expectations postpartum helped me stay mentally healthy after my second baby was born. Panic Attack – The panic attack nine weeks postpartum that had me waiting for the other shoe to drop. Time Capsule – A HAWMC prompt post about what would be in my PPD time capsule. When We Know Better… – A HAWMC prompt with my favorite quote.  How does knowing better the second time around translate into a better postpartum experience? Self Care – Another HAWMC prompt about why I write about mental health.  Hint:  It’s mostly for me. Persistence – My favorite post of all time.  Inspired by a tree.  Yes, a tree. Haiku – I wrote terrible haikus about mental health.  Seriously terrible.  But the links to Sweetly Voiced’s diabetes haikus are worth the click! Tweet, tweet. Boom. – One silly conversation with my husband.  That’s all it took to tell me I was really on the way to being well. Mother’s Day – “To love her more than I feared her.”  That Mother’s Day I had all I really wanted. Anything – Five months postpartum, the anxiety and obesessive thoughts returned. PPD, the Second Time Around – On feeling hopeful and full of joy despite the return of my postpartum anxiety. Giving Up Control – Why does everything mental health-related for me end up being about my childhood?  On seeking out a reason for my anxiety and how that helped me put it in its place. PPD and Marriage – PPD rocked my marriage.  Hard.  My husband was hurt just as I was. I Need Your Help – My post for Strong Start Day 2012 in which I admit to intrusive thoughts about falling down the stairs. When Birthdays Aren’t So Happy – Dealing with the joy of my oldest daughter’s 4th birthday and the trauma of the anniversary of my PPD onset. Breastfeeding on Psychotropic Medication – Why I choose to breastfeed while medicated for depression and anxiety, with special care to support women no matter how they feed their babies. Not For Weak Stomachs – A horrid month of health issues, which I dealt with without any mental health complications.  This was a huge week for me, realizing that my mental illness was well-controlled enough to allow me to deal with crises calmly.  Also?  I was carried down the stairs by a team of firemen while wearing only my underwear.  Good times. So You Think I Shouldn’t Have Had Children – My response to Anderson Cooper’s piece about the “trend” of mothers taking antidepressants and the horrid FB comments on his fan page in response to the story. Don’t Call Them “Happy Pills” – On medication and stigma and a primer on how my antidepressant and anti-anxiety pills work. I Am Not Okay (But I Will Be) – My low days and irritability may periodically return, but armed with therapy, medication, and support, they are short-lived. Talking Climb Out of the Darkness With My Daughter – Doodlebug and I made a video about postpartum depression and why we were hiking in 2013. A Tale of Five Medications (Or Don’t Lose Hope) – All about my medication journey, why it is so hard to find the right medication formula and how stigma kept me from being treated for much too long. […]

  2. From One Teacher to Another | Learned Happiness - September 3, 2014

    […] all the ways she will grow over the next 36 weeks – it is equally as terrifying.  E and I?  We have been through hell and back together, but if I thought bringing a child into this world was hard, it’s nothing compared to letting […]

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