Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How To Produce Depression

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman first defined depression as learned helplessness. Taking his cue from experiments where dogs were taught to be pessimistic about their chances to receive treats, Seligman applied the insight to depression. People who feel depressed often feel that they will not be rewarded no matter what they do. Thus, they, as most of the dogs in the experiment, tended to give up.

Take an individual who comes to a fork in the road. He believes that he has nothing to gain by turning right and nothing to gain by turning left. He stops in his tracks, embraces inactivity, and becomes depressed.

If he withdraws from the world he may start feeling like a spectator watching his life unfold.

Seligman's conclusion also implies that depression can be learned behavior. In his terms, it was learned helplessness. And this implies that if you want to make someone depressed, you need but convince him that life is a tragedy and that he cannot do anything to change the outcome.

Depressed individuals are especially prone to see life as a drama, as a story with a predetermined outcome. The Shakespearean character who declared that "all the world is a stage" was famously melancholic.

Psychotherapy deriving from Freud does not try to cure depression. Lacking optimism, it assumes that depression cannot be treated effectively with therapy. It's alternate goal is to make the depression make sense.

Some forms of Freudian therapy work like literary criticism: they pretend to reveal the true story of your life, the unconscious narrative that has been making you do what you do. They they allow you to critique the narrative.

Other more recent forms pretend that you can rewrite the narrative, but that assumes that it is good or possible to induce all of your friends and family to live in your newly constructed narrative.

To my mind the way out of this Freudian dead end is to see life as a game. A game differs from a story because a game's outcome is not predetermined. When you play a game you are not following a script.

If a game is going on, you do not want to abstract yourself away and discover its meaning. You are better served by improving your ability to play it. In this context coaching has a manifest advantage over therapy.

When you learn better how to play the game of life, you become an active participant, not an actor playing a role or a passive spectator. Moreover, as a player you participate actively in your life, you have a hand in shaping your future, and you become responsible for the outcome.

If you are acting a role in a play, you are surely not responsible for what happens.

Gamesmanship involves learned optimism. As Dr. Helen Smith points out in an illuminating post (link here), when the first experiments into learned helplessness were performed on dogs, not all of the dogs gave up. Some refused to accept that all actions were futile, but found ways around the obstacles that the researchers had created.

According to Dr. Helen government policies create a culture that can either induce learned helplessness by depriving us of freedom or encourage us to act as free individuals who can alter the outcomes of our lives.

For her the government insurance mandate is another effort to deprive us of our freedom. We can add, as Dr. Helen has in other posts, that confiscatory taxation policies tend to deprive people of the freedom to choose how to spend, save, and invest their money. The result is that people work less; in her felicitous phrase, they go John Galt!

As a coda, if you were wondering how anyone can overcome the sense of futility you feel when you come to a fork in the road and believe that there is no right move to make, you should remember the immortal words, supposedly attributed to Yogi Berra: When you come to a fork in the road, pick it up.

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