What Can You Actually Affect?
Do what you can.
In a groundbreaking series of studies in the
1960's and 1970's, Martin Seligman and colleagues
at the University of Pennsylvania showed that it
was remarkably - and sadly - easy to produce
"learned helplessness" in dogs, whose emotional
circuitry in the brain is similar in many ways to
Essentially, it took only a handful of "trials"
- rounds of training - to make the dogs feel
helpless and just whimper passively in painful
situations they could easily escape. But then it
would take many dozens, even hundreds, of trials to
help them unlearn that approach to life. And the
dogs with learned helplessness also seemed
depressed (the dog version), with little interest
in food, sex, or normal doggy liveliness.
People are just the same. We are also sadly
vulnerable to developing learned helplessness,
which is hard to undo. Think about all the times
you've felt like a nail instead of a hammer. Each
time was another little training in learned
The consequences can be serious. In children and
adults, learned helplessness fosters depression,
anxiety, pessimism, low self-worth, and less effort
toward goals. Not good.
So this part is really important: Researchers
have also found that two key things can protect you
against learned helplessness:
- Your attitude about events - Try to
see them as temporary rather than permanent, due
to lots of causes and not your fault, and
specific, localized problems rather than
general, global issues.
- Taking the actions that are available to
you - There may be a lot you cannot
influence in a situation, but there is always
something you can do, even if it is only inside
your own head. Consider this quotation from
Viktor Frankl, who was in the Auschwitz
concentration camp during World War II:
We who lived in concentration camps can
remember those who walked through the huts
comforting others, giving away their last piece of
bread. They may have been few in number, but they
offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken
from a person but one thing: the last of human
freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given
set of circumstances - to choose one's own
In life there are basically three areas where
you can take action to make things better: out
there in the world (including your relationships),
inside your body, and inside your mind. To the
extent you possibly can, "choose your own way" in
each of these areas.
Then you'll feel better, make a better life for
yourself, and have more to offer others.
Start by sorting out your "circle of influence
and circle of concern" - an idea from Stephen
Covey's book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective
People. As you can see in the figure just below,
there are the things we have power over
("influence) as well as the things we value and
care about ("concern").
Where those circles overlap is the sweet spot
where we can actually make a difference in the
things that matter to us (out there in the world,
in the body, and in the mind).
(A quick but vital point which I'll say more
about in the next Just One Thing: Sometimes there
are things we care about but can't change
personally, like children being mistreated or
people going hungry. I'm not saying just ignore
those things or be indifferent to them. Not at all.
We could focus on what we can do, which includes
bearing witness to the suffering of others, staying
informed, letting them move our hearts, wishing
them well, and looking for the opportunities that
do come along to make a material difference, such
as signing a petition or making a donation for a
Think about those circles each day. Ask yourself
from time to time: Where do I have influence? And
where are things out of my hands?
Then consider this blunt question:
How could I pull my time, money, energy,
attention, worry, etc. out of . . .
tunnels with no cheese
dogs that won't hunt
stones that will never give blood
houses built on sand
[choose your own metaphor] . . .
And instead, shift those resources to where they
will actually make a difference?
Facing this blunt question head on has changed
And, if you want go further with this, here are
some practical steps you could take:
* * *
- Take a mental inventory of all the
resources, strengths, and opportunities you do
have. (Maybe write down some of them, which will
give this step more impact for you.) Most people
have much more capacity to influence their life
for the better than they recognize. Your circle
of influence is probably a lot bigger than you
think it is!
- Identify your top five or ten values in
life. Write them down any way you like, as a
single word (e.g., health, family, spirit) or
phrase or sentence (e.g., building a safety net
for retirement). See if you can put them in
priority order, with no ties allowed (!). If you
could achieve only one of your values, which
would it be? Take that one off the list and ask
the question again about the values that remain,
and repeat the process. Then step back and
consider the ways you are - and are not - living
true to that list and the priorities on it.
- Consider how you could take action - toward
your important values - in your world, body, and
mind in ways you haven't ever done, or have
never sustained. Challenge your assumptions,
like: "Oh, I just couldn't do that." Are you
sure? Bring to mind someone you know who is very
self-confident, and then ask yourself: "If I was
that confident, what are some of the new things
I would do?"
- In particular, think about actions you could
take inside your own mind. Compared to trying to
change the world or the body, the mind is where
we have the greatest influence, and the results
are usually most enduring and consequential. For
example, how could you shift your perspective,
or nudge your emotional reactions in a better
direction over time, or develop stronger mental
capacities such as focused attention, openness,
and warmth? These are all within your
Each day, look for the ways - mainly little
ones, with some occasional bigees - you could take
the actions you can toward your values, out there
in the world, in your body, and in your mind. It
may not be much on any single day, but over time it
will add up to make a big difference for you and
those around you.
When I don't know what to do about some
difficulty, sometimes I think of a saying from a
boy named Nkosi Johnson, from South Africa. Like
many children there, Nkosi was born with HIV, and
he died when he was 12. Before that happened, he
became a nationally-known advocate for people with
AIDS. His "mantra," as he called it, always touches
Do all you can, with what you have, in the time
you have, in the place where you are.
That's all anyone can ever do.
* * *
As they say in Tibet, if you take care of the
the years will take care of themselves.
is a neuropsychologist and author of
Brain: The practical neuroscience of
& wisdom with
Rick Mendius and Mother Nurture: A Mother's
Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate
Relationships. A summa cum laude graduate of
UCLA who received his doctorate from the Wright
Institute in Berkeley, CA, he founded the
Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and
Contemplative Wisdom, edits the Wise Brain
Bulletin, and writes a blog for PsychologyToday.com
as well as a weekly newsletter called Just One
Thing; his articles have also appeared in Tricycle
Magazine, Insight Journal, Inquiring Mind, and
Buddhist Geeks on-line magazine. He teaches
regularly at universities and meditation centers in
Europe, Australia, and North America, and has audio
programs with Sounds True. Rick began meditating in
1974 and has practiced in several traditions; he
was a board member at Spirit Rock Meditation Center
for nine years and is a graduate of its Community
Dharma Leaders program. He leads a regular
meditation gathering in San Rafael, CA. Currently a
Trustee of Saybrook University, he was also
President of the Board of FamilyWorks, a non-profit
agency. He and his wife have two adult children.
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