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Don't Be Helpless, Open Yourself Up

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A classic psychology experiment by Martin Seligman used two groups of dogs, A and B, which received strong electric shocks while strapped in a hammock. The dogs in group A were able to exert some control over their situation: They could turn the shock off by pushing a nearby panel. But for the dogs in group B, the shocks were inescapable; they had no power. The number and duration of the shocks were the same for both groups, though. Whenever the group A dog was shocked, so was the group B dog. Whenever the group A dog turned off the shock, the shock was turned off for the group B dog. Thus, both groups experienced exactly the same level of physical suffering; the only difference was what the animals were able to do about it.

What did the groups B dogs learn in this situation? To find out, both groups of dogs were presented with a task in which they had to learn to jump from one compartment to another to avoid a shock. The dogs in group A learned easily. Things were different for the dogs in group B. They quickly became much more passive, simply taking whatever shocks were delivered. They didn't try to run away from the shocks or avoid them, they just gave up. Earlier in the experiment, the group B dogs really had been helpless; there truly was nothing they could do. But now they had a way to escape the shocks. They never discovered it, however, because they had learned to be helpless.

This study can teach us many things. It's natural to let the past influence the decisions we make today. It's usually beneficial to to learn from what we did wrong, so we don't make the same mistakes again. But the past shouldn't dictate our future. It's important not to let experiences we've had negatively impact the new opportunities that each day brings. Don't learn to be helpless. Instead, open yourself up. You might not realize it, but the change you are looking for might be within your power to create. In the darkest of places, at the darkest of times, the sunshine we are all waiting for might actually come from within.

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