In the mid-1960s researchers at the University of Pennsylvania discovered a phenomenon they termed learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness would prevent any action.
While the concept is strongly tied to animal psychology and behaviour, it can also apply to many situations involving human beings. When people feel that they have no control over their situation, they may also begin to behave in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change. (from What Is Learned Helplessness by Kendra Cherry)
In a recent lecture I attended the speaker considered the subject of destiny. I wonder how many people feel they have control over their own destiny? I think a very common view would be that we have very little control over it. Perhaps the attitude is, “Look at the hand I was dealt—I had no control over any of it. I had no choice over who my parents were, nor the makeup of my genetic material. I neither had control over which socio-economic strata I was born into, nor did I have much say in how my parents raised me. Furthermore, I had no choice regarding the various slings and arrows of fortune that have come my way over the years.”
The fact is, embedded within the human condition is a severe case of learned helplessness. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve been trained to think that we’re pretty much stuck with what we’ve got and we better put up with it, because whatever could change our destiny is beyond our control. Quite a different picture emerged in the lecture I attended. I have a transcript of it and I’ll read you a few selected sentences and interject a few of my comments. “Our destiny as individuals depends more on our thoughts than our circumstances.” And my comment is: Our thoughts are something well within our control.
Here’s another quote from the transcript: “Our true destiny emerges from our true selves.” My comment: Destiny is not random and has nothing to do with luck. Our true selves are part and parcel of the overall perfection of design. One last quote: “Our greatest accomplishments are not behind us, but are potentially present here and now.” And my comment is: We’re not stuck. There is huge opportunity to allow creativity to be released—always.
In other words, we very much have control and sway over the direction and substance of our individual destinies, if only we’d take the steps to move forward and do it. How freeing is this! We’re not stuck. We’re not helpless. There’s absolutely nothing blocking our way. Everything that we need to allow the fullness and richness of our destiny to be substantially fulfilled is immediately at hand. With these thoughts in mind I see a noticeable difference in my own atmosphere and approach to my immediate circumstances. I’m actually feeling optimistic, and rightly so, because, to use a biblical expression, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Is it better to be optimistic or pessimistic?
Speaking of optimism, here’s a question: Is it better to be optimistic or pessimistic? I guess it all depends upon what you mean by optimism and it also depends upon which scientific study you happen to believe. Here’s some research that the optimists get excited about: “In a study done by the Mayo Clinic, the medical histories of 839 people were tracked over 30 years. They had all completed a standard personality test between 1962 and 1965, measuring their optimism. There were 124 optimists, 197 pessimists and 518 in between. Their death rates were compared and every 10-point increase in pessimism was associated with a 19 percent increase in death rate. Similar studies have been done more recently on the role of optimism in high-risk pregnancies, speeding recovery from heart by-pass surgery, and as part of the treatment for teenagers who take drugs. In all of these studies pessimists tended to do markedly worse. Researchers found that those who believe that they are in charge of their destiny are happier, healthier and more productive than any other group of people.”
To balance this out, a few of us were recently discussing another study that seemed to suggest the opposite, that pessimists live longer, as they tend to be more risk averse and generally more careful. By the way, here’s an interesting statistic: apparently in most professions except for one, optimists seem to generally outperform pessimists. The one exception is attorneys. It seems that the most successful attorneys tend to be pessimists, as it’s their job to always look for what could go wrong!
What really is optimism?
Perhaps it might be useful to consider what we mean by optimism. The dictionary defines optimism as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.” However, from our perspective the critical issue should be, what is that something? What is the expectation? Is it purely at the level of physical accomplishment? For example, are we optimistic that things will work out well for us personally speaking—that we’ll have successful and important careers, that we’ll be well off? There’s more than a little ego wrapped up in this type of optimism. Or another example, are we optimistic about the human condition, confident that humankind will come up with political solutions and technological innovations that will solve such intractable issues like poverty, pollution, disease, overpopulation, wars, terrorism, human conflict? If these are the expectations, perhaps we’re better off as pessimists!
Trust in Being
On the other hand, if the expectation is at a higher level, above the level of physical accomplishment, than this is a totally different story. For example, if the expectation is that the creative process of life will have its way, and that the various factors of universal Being are working in harmony to maximize the overall benefit to the whole, there’s every good reason to be optimistic. This type of optimism places total trust in Being and becomes our own experience to the extent that we consciously are aligned with that creative process.
Another way of describing such an experience is having confidence that the one power throughout the universe (which I have called Being), is definitely up to the task. We likely will not know in advance the specific details that are sorting themselves out at the level of physical accomplishment. We might even be surprised or disappointed at what puts in an appearance. But to the extent that we are aligned with the process, we can be totally confident that what has worked out is exactly what should have unfolded for the overall well-being of the whole.
Now, whether the experience of optimism extends our lifespans no doubt will be a topic of ongoing debate. However I suspect most would agree that it’s not a matter of how long we live, but rather the quality of our time and the extent to which we’ve been able to fulfill our destiny and realize our life’s work that counts. As we do fulfill our destiny, invariably our outlook on life becomes increasingly optimistic. It turns out that this is definitely good for your health. In fact there’s an accumulating body of evidence that correlates behaviours such as being optimistic with an increased quality of life. We experience this ourselves. When we express divine character, when we express confidence in the creative process, it simply feels better than if we don’t. We feel better, but so do the people around us as the generated substance permeates our spheres of responsibility and beyond. Thus an aspect of our life’s work is to positively contribute to the quality of life and overall well-being of our worlds.
Taking greater responsibility
In these days of runaway healthcare costs there’s an increased emphasis on personal wellness and well-being. From an economic standpoint it’s obvious that the cost of healthcare is simply unsustainable. Something’s got to give or the system will collapse on itself. This sense of crisis has spurred some creative thinking along the way. One initiative that seems to be getting some traction is the insistence that all stakeholders, including individuals, have some skin in the game. I’m seeing this first-hand at the company where I work. Each employee is being asked to take greater responsibility for his or her own wellness and well-being. This makes sense, as we’re all in this together.
Here’s how it’s going to work. One of the really good benefits that we’ve enjoyed as employees is the availability of high quality affordable health insurance. However, there’s a change afoot for the coming fiscal year. In order to qualify for this type of coverage, each employee must complete two activities by the end of August. We each have to submit to a biometric health screening, which is like a mini physical, performed on site at our office. We also have to complete a fairly comprehensive online health assessment. The goal is to provide accurate wellness information to each of us, so that we can take steps to make whatever changes would be beneficial to our overall physical, mental and emotional well-being.
The good news is that the healthcare crisis is driving people to take on greater responsibility. I feel that this is a good thing. Then it occurred to me, wouldn’t it be great if at some point there was the realization that there also is a crisis looming if the present human state of conflict and corruption is allowed to run amok unabated? Maybe employers could also get involved in compelling their employees to take greater responsibility in assessing deficiencies in the expression of the finest qualities of character! Such online assessments already exist to a certain degree, such as the ones available on Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness website. Seligman, incidentally, was the lead author on the Learned Helplessness study. Certainly companies would reap the benefits if their workforce exhibited a tone of increased substance and character, but this is a topic for another day.
So as I write this I feel there definitely is good reason to be optimistic. We indeed are not helpless, but in fact have been given an abundant provision to reveal our true purpose exactly where we are. I would close with some inspiring words by Winston Churchill: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” These are good words to remember as we face the challenges that are very present in our moment-to-moment circumstances.
Read more from Sanford Baran in BEYOND MATERIALISM: Redefining what really matters to us>>
Sanford Baran is a senior technical consultant at Health Language Inc. in the greater Denver, Colorado area. Sanford lives in Boulder, Colorado. firstname.lastname@example.org.