From Helplessness To Optimism
Thursday, June 16, 2016
Several years ago, researcher Martin Seligman performed experiments showing that dogs could be taught to become helpless in various situations. Seligman then applied those same experiments to human beings. He discovered that during the course of our lives we all develop something called learned helplessness.
How do we change this? Seligman found that through learned optimism we can change our outlook so that we begin to believe that we do have a role in altering our lives. While we can’t change other people and some circumstances, we can take control of our own lives and take small steps toward transforming our outlook, and in turn, our health and wellness. Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning after spending two years in a Nazi concentration camp. During that time he concluded: “I have very little liberty from a physical standpoint. But," he said, “I have all the freedom in the world to intellectually frame the experiences that come into my life . . . We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men 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 man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Dr. David Biebel, co-author of the book 52 Ways to Feel Great Today, has every reason to embrace a bleak outlook on life after losing one son and almost losing another to a genetic disease. In the book’s chapter entitled “Be The Bear,” he writes about visiting a friend’s home and noticing a famous photograph hanging over the fireplace. The photo showed a grizzly bear waiting at the top of a waterfall, mouth gaping, ready to nab a salmon in mid-jump. The salmon had been struggling hard to get up over the falls. On one level, the picture seemed bleak. Dr. Biebel remembers identifying with the plight of the poor salmon. Yup, he thought, that’s the way life is. Futility. You overcome multiple obstacles on the journey, but then, just when the goal is in sight, the grim reaper points to YOU.
Dr. Biebel turned to his friend and asked which he identified with most—the bear or the salmon. The friend replied, “The bear.” This answer caused the author to reconsider the image, not from the “victim” mentality of the salmon, but from the “victor” mentality of the bear. The more he pondered the implications, the more he liked it. He obtained a poster of the same image. Above the bear and the salmon, in indelible black marker, he wrote “BTB.” The letters stand for “Be the Bear.” The photo now hangs in his living room.
No one has to be the victim; anyone can be the bear. It’s a matter of how you choose to look at things. You do have a choice! Outlook is not the consequence of what others do to you—you are in control of your outlook. So you can opt to see the good. You can choose to see the beautiful, to appreciate what surrounds you. Your choices alter the way you view life, either improving or distorting your perspective.