Saturday, February 4, 2012


Contented cows.

I’ve begun reading “Happier” by Tal Ben-shahar, and one insight struck me: we can very easily “learn” to be helpless. Tal tells the story of an experiment where dogs were grouped into three: one group was given an electric shock, but could turn it off; another was given an electric shock but couldn’t turn it off; the third group was given no electric shock. After this treatment, all three groups were again subjected to an electric shock, but in a situation where they could easily jump over a barrier and escape it. The dogs from the first and third groups quickly escaped; but the dogs who had learnt that there was no escaping the earlier shocks simply lay there and whimpered.

Now, (setting aside for the moment the ethics of giving electric shocks to experimental animals), ask yourself if you are one of those who lie there whimpering when life continues to give you a few shocks. Have you learnt to be helpless?

Tal goes on to recount a similar experiment on people, this time using loud noise: the first group could turn it off, the second could not, and the third was not subjected to the noise. When all three groups were subjected to the noise but all could turn it off if they tried, the first and third groups did so, but the second group just endured.

Are you just enduring?

(As an aside, with a two-storey basement about to be built below the house next door to me, this experiment could come close to home - pun intended.)

Tal is talking about “learned helplessness” - and it is an inaccurate view of reality. An analogy can be drawn with people who have lived unhappy lives (perhaps stuck in a rat race of work and long hours to get ahead in their career) and who have mistakenly “learnt” that this is the only way to live.

The good news? Our learning reflexes can be put to good use. If you initiate a useful, healthy, happy ritual - think something like exercise, reading for relaxation, eating well, cutting out sugar in your coffee, cutting out coffee - it only takes about a month for the ritual to become a habit. That hamburger will look like poison.

Sometimes a simple insight can make a big difference.

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