To understand the psychology of failure and success in the modern world, we need to step back briefly in time. In the 1960s, Martin Seligman was not yet the founding father of positive psychology. He was only a lowly graduate student, studying the opposite of happiness in his university’s lab.
Older researchers in Seligman’s lab were doing experiments pairing noises, like those made by a bell, with small shocks to see how dogs would eventually react to the bell alone. Then after this conditioning was complete, the researchers would put each dog in a large box with two compartments separated by a low wall. In one compartment, the dogs would get shocked, but on the other side they would be safe from shocks, and it was easy to jump over the wall. The researchers predicted that once the dogs heard the bell, they would immediately jump in the safe half of the box so they could avoid the shock they knew would follow. But that’s not what happened.
After decades of studying human behavior, Seligman and his colleagues found that the same patterns of helplessness they saw in those dogs are incredibly common in humans.
Seligman walked into the lab one day and overheard the older researchers complaining. “The dogs won’t do anything,” they lamented. “Something’s wrong with them.” Before the experiment started, the dogs had been able to jump over the barriers just fine, but this time they were just lying there. In this new situation, Seligman realized, they didn’t try jumping to the safe half of the box because they believed there was nothing they could do to avoid the shock.
After decades of studying human behavior, Seligman and his colleagues found that the same patterns of helplessness they saw in those dogs are incredibly common in humans. When we fail, or when life delivers a shock, we can become so hopeless that we respond by simply giving up. Remember that helplessness is a choice, and you never have to give up. For successful people, giving up is not an option.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.