Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Most of us experience ups and downs.  Without the downs, we would neither appreciate nor recognize the ups and, without the ups, we would be joyless and listless.

While many believe that each individual has a natural set point for happiness that is not changeable, Dr. Martin Seligman believes differently. The director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania lays out his research, findings and recommendations in his book “Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” (Vintage Books, 2006).

As a graduate student in experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman studied dogs, and noticed that some would do nothing when they were shocked.  Seligman determined that the dogs had felt the “shocks go on and off regardless of whether they struggled or jumped back or barked or they did nothing at all.” 

Therefore, according to Seligman, the dogs “had concluded or ‘learned,’ that nothing they did mattered.  So why try?”

Most people have faced situations where they too have felt helpless, times when no efforts seemed to make a difference.  Eventually, after becoming worn down, they gave up and did nothing.

Seligman references a study done by graduate student Donald Hiroto while completing his dissertation at Oregon State University.  This study noted that about 33 percent of test subjects did not learn helplessness, but continued to persevere.  The study also noted that about 10 percent of test subjects never tried, or acted helpless from the start. 

Applying this study’s results to the general population, this translates into 10 percent of the population who never try to overcome obstacles, 57 percent of the population who learn to be helpless in the face of failure and 33 percent who never give up. 

The good news is that Seligman hypothesized that if helplessness “could be learned, then it could be unlearned.”  The benefits of unlearning helplessness would be enormous: continued action, energy, perseverance and results.  This ability to unlearn helplessness could potentially benefit 57 percent of the population.


Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Jackie Gingrich Cushman is a speaker, syndicated columnist, socialpreneur, and author of "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," and co-author of “The 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours”.