Jamie’s given up on ever being happy. His marriage has deteriorated into – on the best days – just being roommates. Some days Jamie’s so desperately lonely that he agonizes over a divorce because it would greatly curtail how much time he’d be able to spend with his kids.
Jamie’s job as a mid-level manager doesn’t offer any satisfaction either. His boss gets on him to meet deadlines, and Jamie passes on the pressure to his reports. He feels that his job mainly consists of getting a bunch of people to just do the work that they’re supposed to be doing.
It wasn’t always this way. Jamie spent years trying to make his marriage work, only to feel his efforts were repeatedly rejected by his wife. He tried talking to his boss about his ideas for getting better results, only to get responses such as “we’ll never get that approved.”
Jamie’s concluded that happiness isn’t in the cards for him. He’s come to believe that failure to achieve happiness in the past is a good predictor of how he’ll feel in the future.
Drawing on unresolved problems from the past to predict the future leads to “learned helplessness,” a term coined by psychologist Martin Seligman. He studied how animals learn to cope with unpleasant experiences by dividing dogs into three groups. The first group got very mild electric shocks which they could turn off by learning to press a lever. The second group also received the annoying sensation, but they had no way of stopping it. The third group were not given any unpleasant stimuli at all.
Later all three groups of dogs were placed in a box with very low sides that easily allowed them to escape when the mild stimulus was administered. The dogs from the first group and the third group quickly jumped out of the cage. But the second group of dogs – those who had learned to feel helpless in the previous experience in which they were unable to change the situation – simply stayed in the cage and whimpered.
Experiments with human beings have shown the same results. Three groups of people were subjected to a loud noise. Just like the dogs, the group who could not control the irritating sound in the first phase of the study did not even try to do so in subsequent trials when they could affect the outcome. They became resigned to enduring their unpleasant predicament.
These studies show us just how easy it is to learn to feel helpless if we’re stuck in unhappy situations. In addition, our mind can also jump to the conclusion that if we cannot control one part of our life, we’ll be unable to have a positive impact on any aspect of our world. Explaining problems as being permanent and pervasive leads people to feel despair – which decimates their energy for doing anything to change their situation.
Jamie could learn to tell himself a different story in which he’s no longer a slave to his previous problems. Since he’s just making up his story about the future anyway, he could imagine that it has a happy ending. This will enable his brain to picture a future based on what he wants to see happen.
Psychologist Richard Davidson studies how your thoughts effect your happiness. He’s found that people who regularly practice envisioning themselves going from sad to glad become motivated to engage in activities they believe will lead to attaining positive outcomes. Having a vision and taking a first step changes people’s mood.
To practice visioning find a quiet place where you can sit up comfortably with your back straight. Develop a calm state of mind by breathing deeply and slowly. Fill your lungs with air all the way down to your abdomen. Then slowly let go completely and allow the natural elasticity of your chest to ease the air out. Focus your mind on scanning your body for tension, and direct your breathing to that spot until it relaxes.
After a few minutes of breathing and relaxing, allow your mind to picture yourself looking unhappy. Then let your mind imagine the future by asking yourself what you will look like when you’re feeling happy again. Envision engaging in activities that will give you positive experiences. Savor those images and allow the positive emotions that accompany those thoughts to fill your heart with happiness for a few minutes. Then ask yourself what small step you could take to move toward that destination today.