Why Are You Rigged To Be Miserable? (Probably)

Depression is a condition I owe my current understanding of the world. Back in August 2017, I was diagnosed with a mild form of depressive disorder while along with my therapist we concluded it was the result of limited social interactions due to working from a home-office located in gloomy Seattle. She proposed meditation and mindfulness, but I had something else in mind. With too much enthusiasm at the time, I formulated a plan and spent a week crafting and forecasting a series of steps that would take me out of the darkness and into a new career. That’s right, my plan not only included getting out of my depressive state but, at the same time, launching a new whole career. I’m still astounded my therapist never mentioned the terms ‘grandiose’ or ‘delusional’ in our sessions.

It was a simple plan, I was going to do research, as much as my already tight agenda of having a family and full-time job allowed and become an expert on depression. Simple but too optimistic I must now admit. What I thought it would be an easy three months of reading became a year and a half of consuming books, research papers and essays while ditching the therapist in the process. It was a revelatory time of acquiring loads of knowledge and learning a few things:

First the bad news: there is a depression epidemic everywhere. According to the world health organization in its 2015 fact sheet, more than 300 million people suffered from some depressive episode that year, this represents 4% of the human population. Yet, the number is more impressive when we drill these results to the United States, since that percentage jump to 7.3% or 18 million miserable Americans. The click-bait title of that imaginary article would say something like: The 7 Weird Reasons Why Americans Are More Depressed than the Rest of the World.

The good news is we know how to fix it. And the solution is science. Following the bad click-bait title theme: You Won’t Believe How the Science of Happiness Works. That’s right, science has an Everest of knowledge about fixing depression and, most importantly, how to increase happiness and wellbeing through specific positive psychology actions we all could do. Some of the most prominent solutions are the practice of constant gratitude, the allocation of meaning to our actions and the conscious search for a more fruitful social life. We all know this on an instinct level, but we also struggle into bringing these concepts into practice in our daily lives. Plus, there is no effective formal translation into the general population of all this scientific knowledge and how to put it into meaningful actions. It looks like scientists are not always the best of communicators and we cannot expect for middle-class citizens of the world, especially in America, to read scientific papers in their spare time.

So, let’s dig a bit deeper into positive psychology and discuss one of it’s most important fundamental concepts. One that it could shatter your perception of depression, as it did with mine. This is a concept not necessarily instinctively but then again can be put into practice quickly. Let’s talk about ‘Learned Helplessness’.

Learned Helplessness

Deep down, most people are fearful characters. And when you’re in what it looks like a visceral, uncertain and ambiguous world, for enough time, you’ll usually end up developing the perception of being stranded in a negative environment that you can neither control nor escape from, even if you don’t like it. That is Learned Helplessness. Basically, they believe that negative stimuli cannot be stopped based on past experiences. Further still, we learned to be helpless since in the past our actions had not contributed to fixing negative moments, feelings or actions. And the world is filled with negative elements that get expanded from a feedback loop that reside in our minds – the more negativity we cannot resolve, the more we think we cannot face it.

According to the latest research, Learned Helplessness is something that some of us are more prone to base on our genes (something we will expand on later), but rather than getting too deep into genetical psychiatry it might be more interesting to discover how a psychologist from Albany discovered learned helplessness by accident while doing experiments on dogs back in the 1960s. Martin Elias Seligman was studying behavioural conditioning at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, he was trying to expand on the research of Pavlov – the guy who could make dogs salivate when they heard a bell ring; when stumbling into something much more interesting but less known than what Pavlov discovered.

In the first part of the experiment, Seligman separated a set of dogs in three distinctive groups and tied them to a harness that could give them an electric shock. Group 1 had the elegant opportunity to pull a panel and stop the shock immediately; as expected, the dogs quickly learn to push the panel as fast as possible when the electricity started flowing. Group 2 did not have such an opportunity even if they also tried to push the panel in front of them, the dramatic shock was random, uncertain, and volatile, and they could do nothing to stop it. The third group was merely the control, so they only had to stand there pleasantly for a fixed amount of time, no shock, no conditioning, no trauma.

After a few months of this, Seligman changed the gruesome stimuli for the dogs to something different, this time giving all groups the same chance of escaping the nefarious environment. Now he placed the dogs in a special shuttle-box apparatus (a chamber containing two rectangular compartments divided by a barrier a few inches high). On one side of the box, the floor would be rigged to give the dogs, again, an electric shock. But now all dogs could escape the shocks on one compartment by jumping over a low partition or barrier to the other side, the safe side. When he placed the control group, quickly these dogs jumped to the other side; the second group, which was already adept to scaping negative stimuli by their own will, learned to jump the hurdle even faster. But then the third group came, and they just sitting there like stoic deities, without any movement, taking the shocks willingly. These dogs were depressed and believed that negative stimuli cannot be stopped based on past experiences (the one with the harness), no matter what they did. They learned lack of control over an aversive stimulus is the normal rule of life, they learned helplessness.

These experiments were replicated with rats and furthermore with human subjects, not electric shocks but annoying sounds that time, and consistently showed that two-thirds of any population of the studied mammal showed learned helplessness because of the experiments. So, it appears that there is a natural predisposition that pushes most of us into vulnerability and defenselessness in the wake of difficulty. But the truly stimulating and fascinating part of the results was the minority subjects that did not learn to be helpless; one-third of the populations seem to be Immune to Helplessness. This is a group of individuals that no matter what they keep going, like an unrelenting train in the face of adversity. They just act. Maybe they can teach us how to face uncertainty, ambiguity, and volatility and then, ultimately, give us the tools to stop depression. That is certainly what Seligman thought as well, as well as an army of positive psychologist scientists ever since, and thanks to them we can now know the answers today. 

Explanatory Styles 

What the scientific community learned from those who are immune to helplessness in subsequent experiments is the key factor that differentiates immunes from rest of the population is their capacity to have a positive worldview; essentially, these people explained their surroundings via optimism and are inclined to twist the perception of their environments toward positive conclusions. This is what psychologist call an Optimistic Explanatory Style. But then again, most of the population do not have an optimistic style of explaining the world – on the contrary, we mostly showcase a pessimistic one.

The significant differences among the two styles can be summarized in how we react to negative stimuli based on 4 essential factors: time, scale, root and control. So, what our perception of each of these will determine if we are a pessimistic or an optimistic thinker, and by extension, immune or not to helplessness. Furthermore, researchers demonstrated that even if we have a genetical predisposition to helplessness, we can also learn to be immune by changing our perception based on these 4 parameters.  So, if we decide we want to be immune to helplessness. Here are the factors:

Time Factor: The pessimistic thinker will tend to magnify the time-frame of negative stimuli and always will overestimate the duration, even thinking it is a permanent feature of their new reality. On the contrast, the optimistic thinker knows it will pass, even if don’t know when they know it won’t be forever. It is the difference between your cousin Rita being all dramatic about not being accepted to an Ivy league university thinking her life is ruined forever and your other cousin Charles, who will go to the University of Washington instead and shrug about not being accepted at Princeton.

Scale Factor: Pervasive is the perfect word to describe what the pessimistic thinker will feel when adversity comes their way, they will think the negativity will undermine everything overestimating the impact in their lives (Rita extending the rejection from Yale and Harvard to her social, personal, professional an academical life, forever). The optimistic thinker understands that the problem is a local phenomenon and only affects one aspect that relates to just one situation (Charles is just happy to go to UW). 

Root Factor: when analyzing the cause of negativity, the pessimistic thinker will approach the problem from a personal perspective giving a “it’s me, it’s my fault” attitude no matter what; on the contrary, the optimistic will be more in line with an “it’s not (entirely) my fault” perspective, being aware of a non-personal factors that could contribute without walking away from accountability. And yes, Rita is full of drama and is all tears, Charles just rolls his eyes.

Control Factor: this is the most important factor and if we decided to act upon just one of the four to improve our lives, the control factor will provide a major impact in our everyday life. And is the perception control in adverse situations that makes all the difference, from thinking there is nothing we can do (pessimistic) to understanding that no matter how daunting or dark the situation, there is always a small filament we can control. By the way, Charles is now convincing Rita to move to Seattle with him, maybe they can share a small apartment near campus.

In practice

I don’t know if I’m still depressed, maybe mildly. I don’t know. What I know is that knowing about a problem and its solution gives me a sense of control and makes me immune, in part, to its effects. Learning about helplessness was the first step towards a major black hole of information and knowledge that I’m still trying to organize and expand. But that huge concavity of knowledge at least gives me the language and understanding of what happens inside my head.

Career-wise I went through an excruciatingly rigorous self-analysis and, by the end, I created a class from learning about positive psychology – so I’m starting a second occupation because of that jump towards fixing my depression. It is just one of those few topics in life that I believed it is worth it to jump over the precipice to see what we can find in the fall. Scary, yes; but worth it.

In essence, it looks like happiness is not a goal but a by-product of conscious framing of our reality, at least for most of us. So, let’s repeat the good news, You Won’t Believe How the Science of Happiness Works and how many solutions there are for our current depression epidemic. The solutions are out there, and I want to believe we all can learn optimistic thinking and develop a better explanatory style as a society.

We can start by understanding that our problems are local, and their impact has a finite amount of time and place. They are not forever and do not affect every single fibre of our life. Yet, more important is to know that we are not completely responsible for the negative environments that sometimes enclosed us and that it is healthy to have a realistic view of our surroundings, so we can affect them in any positive fashion we are inclined to since we always have control over them. Time, Place, Root and Control. That is all we must know to start.

It might be overly optimistic, but it is worth trying to close the chasm between what the science said and what the rest of us know. Plus, we owe it to ourselves and our society for that little self-doubting character in the very centre of our consciousness to learn how to be less uncertain and more in control. We can be immune also, is up to you know.


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