What can you actually affect?
In a groundbreaking series of studies in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Martin Seligman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania showed that it was remarkably – and sadly – easy to produce “learned helplessness” in dogs, whose emotional circuitry in the brain is similar in many ways to our own.
Essentially, it took only a handful of “trials” – rounds of training – to make the dogs feel helpless and just whimper passively in painful situations they could easily escape. But then it would take many dozens, even hundreds, of trials to help them unlearn that approach to life. And the dogs with learned helplessness also seemed depressed (the dog version), with little interest in food, sex, or normal doggy liveliness.
People are just the same. We are also sadly vulnerable to developing learned helplessness, which is hard to undo. Think about all the times you’ve felt like a nail instead of a hammer. Each time was another little training in learned helplessness.
The consequences can be serious. In children and adults, learned helplessness fosters depression, anxiety, pessimism, low self-worth, and less effort toward goals. Not good.
So this part is really important: Researchers have also found that two key things can protect you against learned helplessness:
• Your attitude about events – Try to see them as temporary rather than permanent, due to lots of causes and not your fault, and specific, localized problems rather than general, global issues.
• Taking the actions that are available to you – There may be a lot you cannot influence in a situation, but there is always something you can do, even if it is only inside your own head. Consider this quotation from Viktor Frankl, who was in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember those who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose one’s own way.
In life there are basically three areas where you can take action to make things better: out there in the world (including your relationships), inside your body, and inside your mind. To the extent you possibly can, “choose your own way” in each of these areas.
Then you’ll feel better, make a better life for yourself, and have more to offer others.
Start by sorting out your “circle of influence and circle of concern” – an idea from Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. There are the things we have power over (“influence) as well as the things we value and care about (“concern”).
Where those circles overlap is the sweet spot where we can actually make a difference in the things that matter to us (out there in the world, in the body, and in the mind).
(A quick but vital point which I’ll say more about in the next Just One Thing: Sometimes there are things we care about but can’t change personally, like children being mistreated or people going hungry. I’m not saying just ignore those things or be indifferent to them. Not at all. We could focus on what we can do, which includes bearing witness to the suffering of others, staying informed, letting them move our hearts, wishing them well, and looking for the opportunities that do come along to make a material difference, such as signing a petition or making a donation for a good cause.)
Think about those circles each day. Ask yourself from time to time: Where do I have influence? And where are things out of my hands?
Then consider this blunt question:
How could I pull my time, money, energy, attention, worry, etc. out of . . .
. . . tunnels with no cheese
. . . dogs that won’t hunt
. . . stones that will never give blood
. . . houses built on sand
. . . [choose your own metaphor] . . .
And instead, shift those resources to where they will actually make a difference?
Facing this blunt question head on has changed my life.
And, if you want go further with this, here are some practical steps you could take:
• Take a mental inventory of all the resources, strengths, and opportunities you do have. (Maybe write down some of them, which will give this step more impact for you.) Most people have much more capacity to influence their life for the better than they recognize. Your circle of influence is probably a lot bigger than you think it is!
• Identify your top five or ten values in life. Write them down any way you like, as a single word (e.g., health, family, spirit) or phrase or sentence (e.g., building a safety net for retirement). See if you can put them in priority order, with no ties allowed (!). If you could achieve only one of your values, which would it be? Take that one off the list and ask the question again about the values that remain, and repeat the process. Then step back and consider the ways you are – and are not – living true to that list and the priorities on it.
• Consider how you could take action – toward your important values – in your world, body, and mind in ways you haven’t ever done, or have never sustained. Challenge your assumptions, like: “Oh, I just couldn’t do that.” Are you sure? Bring to mind someone you know who is very self-confident, and then ask yourself: “If I was that confident, what are some of the new things I would do?”
• In particular, think about actions you could take inside your own mind. Compared to trying to change the world or the body, the mind is where we have the greatest influence, and the results are usually most enduring and consequential. For example, how could you shift your perspective, or nudge your emotional reactions in a better direction over time, or develop stronger mental capacities such as focused attention, openness, and warmth? These are all within your reach.
* * *
Each day, look for the ways – mainly little ones, with some occasional bigees – you could take the actions you can toward your values, out there in the world, in your body, and in your mind. It may not be much on any single day, but over time it will add up to make a big difference for you and those around you.
When I don’t know what to do about some difficulty, sometimes I think of a saying from a boy named Nkosi Johnson, from South Africa. Like many children there, Nkosi was born with HIV, and he died when he was 12. Before that happened, he became a nationally-known advocate for people with AIDS. His “mantra,” as he called it, always touches my heart:
Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.
That’s all anyone can ever do.