Do We Teach Ourselves To Settle at Misery?

In the book Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, a study was done that observed dogs and pain. Dr. Seligman and his researchers placed dogs in a cage that had shock pads in the floor. The shocks were moderately painful for the dogs and the dogs searched around the cage and jumped trying to get away from the painful shocks—not a very pleasant experiment! But, Seligman wanted to see if he could train the dogs to put up with the pain and stop searching for relief. With the group, Seligman continued to shock the dogs in the cages. Yet, after a few weeks of this the dogs stopped moving around and simply sat and received the shocks. Then, Seligman placed the dogs were in a cage where only half of the floor was laid with shockers. Sadly, the dogs did not even try to escape. They had stopped looking for a way out. Even when the dogs were shown how to move onto the shock-free area, the dogs still did not move!

This brings up the question, do we teach ourselves to put up with pain, give in to it and accept it? I consistently see this when I work with teenagers who feel that their situation as hopeless—whether that is hard test, abusive parents or bullying friends. Let’s take for example a student I was working with who had an unfair math teacher. This teacher was incredibly strict and seemed to have it out for this client, Jenny. Jenny, normally very hard-working, found this class completely debilitating to her self-esteem. She dreaded it all day long and after the first few failed tests, merely stopped trying to do better. Like a dog who experiences his first few times in the shock cage, Jenny’s first instinct was to avoid the pain and do better. Yet, this didn’t work, the teacher continued to throw her curve balls and pick on her in class—like the dog that had nowhere to go. In the end it just sat miserably, receiving shock after shock. However, a few months into the school year the teacher left on maternity leave. I went to Jenny, “Aren’t you so excited you will get a second chance to bring your grade up this semester! She will be gone for the rest of the year.” Jenny stared at my blankly, much like I imagine a dog would in a half shocking cage. “I can’t do it. I am just going to keep doing this.”

This experience, which comes up in many other scenarios reminded me how easy it is for the human mind to become accustomed to pain and hopelessness and then even when there is a way out fail to take it. Somehow, either the pain of the experience is more tolerable—once Jenny failed once, it did not seem so difficult to keep failing, or it seems easier to stay miserable. How can we prevent this from happening in our own lives or to our children?

First, I think it is important to constantly examine the areas of your life that you think bring you emotional or physical pain. Sometimes we are unaware of the misery, because we have come to accept it or assume it is natural. Second, looking at that pain and examining alternatives. A silly example is a gym I was going to for two years. I hated this gym and felt it was poorly kept and the trainers were rude to many of the non-private gym members. I would dread workouts even more because of the awful gym. Yet, when renewal came around each year I continued to renew it even though there are many gyms to choose from in my area. It took this study for me to realize that I could easily switch—or move off the shocking floor of my cage. Third, make sure you are not suffering as a martyr or because you think you deserve it. Many teens and moms I work with often pick difficult routes or refuse help because they do not think they deserve to be helped or be happy. Think carefully what purpose misery serves in your life and decide to move on from it. Everyone deserves to be happy.

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