Saturday, December 24, 2011

Learning How to Control Your Life

A friend on Facebook posted a link to an essay on Learned Helplessness.  And I liked the idea, as most people aren't really in control of their lives and assume that there is no way of controlling it.  Nothing works out like how they think it should, so they make excuses instead of figuring out how they can make things better.  Blaming your boss for being a dick is easy.  Figuring out how to make that dickie boss support you is difficult; but you'll never do it if you assume it's impossible.

While there might not always be a good solution for all your problems, that's absolutely no excuse to stop looking for one.  You should always try to find a better way of doing things.  Always.

Anyway, here's the response I gave to that essay.

While I agreed with the general point of that essay, I felt that it didn't really hit the nail on the head. For one thing, I don't think helplessness is learned, but rather, it's the default we start with. People aren't trained to accept shitty lives. It's that they were never trained in how to fix things in the first place. It's easy to just go with the flow, while very few people ever learn how to control their lives; including the "rebels" who imagine they're different because they do all the same things all the other "rebels" do. As if contrarianism somehow represented freewill.

Moreover, I think this phenomenon can be more generalized into saying that we can learn to get used to ANYTHING. It's how we cope. It's not just helplessness. Rich people get used to wealth and don't realize they're getting anything special, just as poor people get used to poverty and can't imagine anything different. A smelly room stops being smelly once your brain adjusts, while loud sounds stop being loud after awhile. Our ability to adapt is a key feature in the human brain which is generally a positive thing, though it can obviously lead to bad things, too.

And one glaring error in that essay was the idea that normal people externalize their failures while helpless people blame themselves. This is completely the opposite: Helpless people externalize their failures by believing things were out of their control, while normal people blame themselves and figure out what they could have done differently. It's easy to make excuses for why we fail, but it's hard to see what we could have done better. Even someone who thinks "I failed because I'm stupid" isn't really blaming themselves. They think their failure is outside of their control, and not really their fault because they didn't make themselves stupid. You only blame yourself when you accept that you could have done things differently, but didn't.

Another error was the belief that changing one's ringtones would somehow make one feel more confident in their ability to improve their lives. Again, it's the opposite: You search for superficial and meaningless change in your life because you don't know how to affect real change. Ringtones fix nothing. Learning how to work harder is a real improvement. Most people strive for the superficial because it's so much easier than fixing the real. That's why they're ultimately unhappy, because they've never learned how they can improve their lives for real. People in control of their lives don't spend much time rearranging furniture or changing ringtones. I know I never do.

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