In the midst of all the doom and gloom (not mentioning the R-word!) it’s good to find reasons to be hopeful. The best reason I’ve found lately is that Martin Seligman, the researcher who told us about ‘learned helplessness’ decided to listen to his little daughter and think about ‘learned happiness’ instead!
Learned helplessness is a theory from psychology. It tells us that when a person or animal suffers physical or emotional trauma repeatedly, apparently at random, and when they have no sense of control over this, they develop ‘learned helplessness’. In other words, they give up. They no longer seem to avoid the pain or to try to do anything to make their lives better.
Sometimes friends and family get frustrated with people who are substance dependent or ‘addicted’. Why doesn’t she want to get better? Why won’t he just try? Drug abuse can lead to a vicious cycle of trauma – which can then lead to learned helplessness – nothing I do makes any difference so I’ll stop trying.
Imagine a teenager who uses cannabis to block out family rows. It works. He no longer feels anxious about the fights. When the drug wears off, he feels ashamed. He uses a little more to block out the shame. When cannabis stops working, he tries sleeping tablets – even better results. Even more shame. When his family realise he is using drugs, more rows. More need to block them out. More shame. More rows. More drugs. More shame. More rows…see where I’m going with this? Eventually, he becomes helpless to help himself, because he has repeatedly failed, and he has no control over the original problem. “Why don’t you try harder?”, his family ask. He has lost the ability to try.
Learned optimism, on the other hand, is a newer theory that tells us we can learn to be happier. It is something many teachers are trying to introduce in school, so that children learn from a young age to expect the best. Sometimes we think that optimism and hopefulness can lead to disappointment, but it seems that expecting the best usually means you get the best.
Learned optimism helps children to do better academically and to manage stress (yes, even children get stressed!). Importantly, it also helps them not to feel bad about not knowing something or making a mistake, and to see these as ways of learning and getting better instead of as failures. And it turns out, that teaching in this way also improves things for teachers – they feel less stressed too!
It’s not about ‘think positive!’ ‘positive mental attitude’ ‘everyone’s a winner!’ or other glib, empty phrases. It doesn’t pretend we don’t sometimes feel sad or worried. It’s just that taking away the unnecessary stress, and the fear of making mistakes makes us much better at dealing with the real issues we have in our lives. It’s about giving yourself time and space to think about the good things in your day as well as the worries and problems. It’s worth thinking about – and maybe even smiling about!
and our earlier blogs on gratitude diaries, hugs, and reasons to laugh.