The pandemic and current political environment might have you in the doldrums. Ups and downs are normal in life, but when you've been stuck inside on Zoom calls for months, it's easy to forget the ups.
In "Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life," Martin Seligman provides a map to a more optimistic outlook.
As a graduate student of experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman studied dogs and noticed that some would do nothing when they were shocked. Seligman determined that the dogs had felt the "shocks go on and off regardless of whether they struggled or jumped back or barked or they did nothing at all."
Therefore, according to Seligman, the dogs "had concluded or 'learned,' that nothing they did mattered. So why try?"
Most people have faced situations where they, too, have felt helpless and times when no efforts seemed to make a difference. Eventually, after becoming worn down, they gave up and did nothing.
Some of us might feel the same way regarding the current state of politics and the pandemic.
A study referenced by Seligman noted that about 33% of test subjects did not learn helplessness but continued to persevere. The study also noted that about 10% of test subjects never tried, or acted helpless from the start.
Apply this study's results to the general population and they translate to 10% of the population who never tries to overcome obstacles; 57% who learn to be helpless in the face of failure; and 33% who never give up.
The good news is that Seligman hypothesized that if helplessness "could be learned, then it could be unlearned." The benefits of unlearning helplessness would be enormous: continued action, energy, perseverance and results. This ability to unlearn helplessness could potentially benefit 57% of the population. We really need this now as a country.
Why is optimism important? "Optimists recover from their momentary helplessness immediately," according to Seligman. "Very soon after failing, they pick themselves up, shrug and start trying again. For them, defeat is a challenge, a mere setback on the road to inevitable victory. They see defeat as temporary and specific, not pervasive."