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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Grit" by Angela Duckworth. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is learned helplessness? How can learned helplessness lead to depression and hopelessness?

Learned helplessness is when you’re taught that bad things can’t be prevented or controlled. This is a dangerous way of thinking because it makes you give up and suffer through negative events rather than trying to escape or prevent them.

Learn how to overcome learned helplessness through grit.

Helplessness Leads to Hopelessness

In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth begins her discussion of hope by exploring its opposite: hopelessness, which is a direct result of helplessness. Helplessness is a feeling of having no control over a negative situation. Importantly, Duckworth argues that suffering itself doesn’t lead to hopelessness, but rather, the belief that you can’t control your suffering does. 

To demonstrate this connection, she focuses on learned helplessness, which is when you’re taught through experience or instruction that bad things can’t be stopped or controlled. Studies have shown that when people (or even animals) are taught that they can’t prevent something bad from happening, they give up, accept the negative events and suffer through them rather than try to figure out how to escape them. This attitude continues into new situations even if in that new situation, the negative events are escapable—people and animals who’ve learned helplessness typically choose to suffer through them instead of stopping them. Further, people feeling helplessness suffer depression, sleep problems, and poor concentration—all of which indicate hopelessness.  

Learned Helplessness Leads to Lower Performance

In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner explore how this kind of learned helplessness can affect workers in an organization. They argue that messages of either control or a lack of control can affect a person’s confidence, which in turn affects their performance—people have more confidence, as well as better performance when they believe their opinions will affect how other people make decisions. 

Studies back this up by comparing the behavior of people who’ve been told their colleagues will listen to their opinions against people who’ve been told they are welcome to voice their opinions but they won’t affect the decision-making process—the former group put in more effort and assumed more leadership roles, while the other group was demotivated. 

Optimism Drives Motivation

Duckworth says that you can overcome learned helplessness with learned optimism. She explains that optimists tend to attribute their suffering to temporary and specific causes, while pessimists blame permanent and broad causes. These differing interpretations of the same challenges or setbacks can have significant effects on a person’s motivation. 

(Shortform note: Martin Seligman developed this theory in his book Learned Optimism, in which he argues that optimism and pessimism are different explanatory styles—ways in which we explain bad events to ourselves. He attributes the differences between these explanatory styles to three ways people can interpret events. The first two mirror the concepts Duckworth explores—seeing problems as either temporary or permanent, and either specific or broad. He then adds one more: Optimists see problems as a result of outside forces while pessimists attribute problems to personal failures. Like Duckworth, he feels that these habits of thinking are malleable, and that if you work at changing them, you can adjust your mindset from a pessimistic one to an optimistic one.)

For example, if a pessimist and an optimist both fail a test, the pessimist is more likely to explain it with permanent, broad causes, like, “I always fail when it matters,” or “I’m bad at math.” These are causes that can’t easily be changed, so the pessimist will more likely believe they simply can’t pass this test, and will more likely give up or drop the class.   

The optimist is more likely to explain it with specific, temporary causes, like, “I didn’t spend enough time studying these particular concepts.” These types of explanations lend themselves to actionables. Someone attributing failure to these specific causes can work on them so that next time they won’t fail. 

Psychologists have found that self-talk like that illustrated above can have an enormous influence on how people view challenges and how they respond to setbacks. This has given rise to the field of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which treats depression and other psychological disorders by helping patients to think about negative events in healthier, more optimistic ways. The effects of self-talk are so pronounced that this type of therapy has proven more potent and longer-lasting than antidepressant medication. 

Three Elements of Learned Helplessness

In his book Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins defines learned helplessness as a globalized, overall belief in your own incompetence. He says this belief has three elements:

Permanence: People who suffer from learned helplessness believe their problems will last forever, while people who are able to overcome adversity understand that their problems are temporary.

Pervasiveness: People who feel helpless believe their challenges infuse every aspect of their lives, while stronger people are able to compartmentalize—the first type of person might say “I have no willpower,” while the second might say “I tend to overeat in the afternoons.”

Personal: People who feel helpless attribute their problems to personal faults, while stronger people credit their problems to the specific approach they took. It’s the difference between “I don’t get science” and “I didn’t study properly for that test.”

Robbins advises that to break out of a mindset of helplessness, you find something in your life that you can control and then take proactive steps toward controlling it. This will give you a feeling of accomplishment that will start to color your perspective on other challenges. For example, organizing your desk can make you feel in control of your environment, which can help you approach other problems with more confidence. 
How to Overcome Learned Helplessness With Optimism

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  • How your grit can predict your success
  • The 4 components that make up grit
  • Why focusing on talent means you overlook true potential

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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