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Authentic Happiness book


Learned helplessness

(Why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer)

By Bill Harris, Centerpointe Research Institute

In this post I want to examine one nuance of this yearning for a better quality of life, something that has fascinated me for a number of years.

You could call this, “Why the Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Poorer,” or “Learned Helplessness.” Let me explain what I mean.

A significant amount of research has come to light lately about what most people would see as a grim fact of life (all life, not just human life): the fact that resources flow more easily to those who are already successful, and away from those who are unsuccessful.

“To he who hath it shall be given; from he who hath not even what he hath shall be taken away.”

leaf-cutter antsThis law applies to bacterial colonies, human beings, and everything in between.

Though this law of nature seems cruel in terms of the individual, it is a powerful and positive survival mechanism when looked at from the point of view of the whole.

So let’s look at this more closely, as it has a significant bearing on your ability to create a happy, fulfilling life. And, if you happen to be stuck on the wrong side of this law of nature, understanding it just might help you to reverse that trend (yes, there is a way to reverse it).

One of the simplest examples of this law is the workings of a bacterial colony. Amazingly, bacteria have sophisticated ways of communicating. One of these is through chemical attraction and repulsion cues, which are very useful to the colony.

As long as bacteria are in an area rich in food, they chow down and multiply like, well, like bacteria. Once the available food is gone, however, the colony sends out bands of scouts to look for new sources of groceries.

Not all of them succeed, however. Some bands end up in the bacterial equivalent of a desert, while others may find a new bacterial food court.

Those who end up stranded in the desert send out chemical messages that say, in effect, “avoid me.” In this way, resources aren’t wasted on expeditions to the same desert area.

If a band ends up in food heaven, however, it sends out chemical messages equivalent to those ten-foot signs on the roofs of diners saying “EAT!”

As a result, the other bacteria come running (or oozing, or whatever bacteria do to get around.)

In other words, resources are withdrawn from the failures, and made available to the successful.

This same mechanism happens in all living systems. Those who are successful attract resources, and those who fail actually repel them.

The obvious message is that you want to be in the successful group.

If you are, more of whatever you want and need comes to you. A great deal of what I teach at Centerpointe is my attempt to show you how to be in this group.

For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I also believe – quite strongly – that Holosync use increases your ability to be in this resource-attracting group.

Let’s look at a few more examples so you can more clearly see how this principle works.

All living systems have a built-in self-destruct mechanism that, as I said above, withdraws resources from the unsuccessful and diverts them to the successful.

Robert Sapoloski discovered how wild baboons at the lower end of the baboon pecking order actually create large amounts of hormonal poisons that kill brain cells, causing their hair to fall out, wiping out their immune function, and leading to chronic illness.

This, of course, further decreases their power and status with their baboon peers.

On the other hand, those at the top of the pecking order make more of the hormones and brain chemicals that cause well-being, self-confidence, and better health.

And, in addition to better chemistry, these winners also end up with better food, the best living areas, and the most desirable sexual partners.

Researcher Marvin Zuckerman found that depressed hospital patients–those who actually needed the most care–were least likely to attract the compassionate attention of their caregivers.

Their complaints, anger, body language, facial expressions, and other negative behaviors actually drive away those who might give them the care and nurturing they need.

On the other hand, those patients who are cheerful in the face of terrible illness or even impending death attract better care, more nurturing, and many friends. The nurses and doctors flock to them with sympathy.

It has long been known that individual cells have a self-destruct mechanism called apoptosis that rids the organism of unneeded, unwanted, or otherwise malfunctioning cells.

Unsuccessful organisms (including human beings) have similar self-destruct programming that kicks in when that organism is no longer useful to the larger community.

A similar mechanism, in fact, appears on every level of life. The human body, for instance, contains millions of different types of antibodies.

Just as in the examples above, resources flow to those antibodies that successfully find and deal with invaders, and away from those who either cannot find invaders that match their particular weapons, or aren’t able to defeat the invaders they encounter.

Those that are successful attract resources and increase their numbers at an incredible speed, while those that fail are robbed of food and the ability to multiply.

There is, then, competition for resources at all levels in all living systems, including human and animal communities.

Built into each system, fairly or unfairly, is a mechanism by which the group automatically withholds or withdraws resources from individuals who “fail.”

What is more, unsuccessful individuals–through internal, built-in, automatic self-destruct mechanisms–withhold resources (positive, life-giving neurochemicals and hormones, for instance, that would cause them to feel and function better) from themselves!

The resulting condition is sometimes referred to as “learned helplessness.”

Russian tightrope walkerWhen humans (or animals) are able to solve a problem they not only overcome the problem, they also thrive in other ways (some internal and some external) as a result of having encountered and successfully dealt with that problem.

On the other hand, those who cannot solve a problem activate their own internal self-destruct mechanisms, which can be mental, attitudinal, emotional, hormonal, or neurochemical.

These then create external social cues that cause their social group to further withhold resources.

In one study, rats were wired to receive painful electric shocks. Some of the rats had access to a button that, when pushed, would stop the shock, not only for the button-pusher, but also for other rats subjected to the same shock.

Once the control buttons were discovered by certain of the rats, these luckier rodents would instantly lunge for the button whenever the experimenters turned on the juice, ending their own pain and that of their fellow rats.

The rats who never discovered the “off” button had no means of controlling their situation, and eventually gave up and passively resigned themselves to the painful shocks that came out of nowhere.

These rats, even though they received the same number of shocks, and for the same duration, as the button-pushing rats, became physical wrecks. Their hair fell out. They developed ulcers. They lost weight.

The rat button-pushers, on the other hand, remained reasonably plump and fit. The rats without control buttons were sabotaged by their own built-in self-destruct mechanisms. They were poisoned by their own stress hormones.

Their immune systems failed. Their reflexes atrophied. If given a way to escape, they were too confused to notice it or too infirm to take advantage of it.

(This reminds me of some people who attend very expertly-taught self-help seminars, but somehow are unable to take advantage of what has been tremendously helpful to most other people.)

Similar experiments have been repeated in many different animal populations, including humans.

In each case, individuals who fail tend to develop this same sort of learned helplessness which causes external resources to stop flowing to them and also causes their own body to shut down internal resources. As a result, they give up.

On the other hand, those who succeed–and particularly those who find a way to exert a certain amount of control over the situations in which they find themselves–end up with greater dominance within their group, more and better food, better lodgings or living situations, and more sexual privileges.

Their internal chemical factories churn out what they need in order to be healthy, clear-minded, and vital. Truly, the rich do get richer while the poor get poorer.

Is this a no-win situation? Once you’re on the downward spiral, are you screwed? This would be the case–if you had no power to consciously and intentionally do things in a different way.

The new and growing field of neuroplasticity indicates that you can change your internal processes and learn new ways of living and dealing with the world.

When you practice doing anything, including thinking about yourself in a new way, your brain devotes more brain real estate to that function, and you get better at it.

The existence of brain plasticity means that it is not inevitable that if you are moving in an unsuccessful direction you have to continue moving in the same groove until you circle the drain. You do have the power to step out of a negative, self-destructive spiral.

Once resources begin flowing either to you or away from you they tend to keep flowing in that same direction. Usually, in fact, the flow increases as time goes on.

Your job, then, is to get on the right side of this flow of resources. It’s true that if resources tend to flow away from you, there will be a momentum to overcome if you’re going to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and move to the resource-attracting side of the equation.

It can, however, be done. I’ve done it. Up until the mid-1980s, I was depressed, anxious, difficult to get along with, had few friends, and was scraping by on a very small income. I was definitely on the wrong side of the flow of resources, internally and externally.

Two things, I believe, shifted me from the self-destruct mode to the success mode, and I’ve found that these two methods work for anyone who uses them (though I will admit that the deeper you are in the self-destructive, learned-helplessness mode, the tougher it is, at least in the beginning).

CenterpointeYou probably won’t be surprised to hear that the first method is Holosync.

Holosync increases awareness, which is one of the keys to this process.

Why? Because increased awareness allows you to see HOW you’ve been unconsciously sabotaging yourself.

Even more important, Holosync stimulates the production of the very same neurochemicals and hormones made in abundance by those who are successful.

These feel-good neurochemicals and hormones are a large part of what makes life easy for the successful top-of-the-pecking-order types.

Holosync’s ability to stimulate the production of these ”success neurochemicals” makes it easier to overcome the negative, self-destructive, learned helplessness momentum.

The second method is to use the resulting awareness to look inside your own mind and observe the internal processes that directly generate how you feel in each moment, how you behave, what and whom you attract or become attracted to, and what meanings you place on the events of your life.

Winners–those to whom resources flow–feel different than losers. Their unconscious internal processes more often generate pleasurable and resourceful emotions, along with their characteristic neurochemicals.

Because behavior is generated to a great extent by your internal state (which, in addition to feelings also includes such things as courage, persistence, confidence, enthusiasm, and so forth), winners also behave in a different way.

Again, the internal processes of winners motivate them to act in more resourceful ways.

And, the resulting successful outcomes generated by these internal states and external behaviors tend to build on each other because they generate more feel-good brain chemistry, more self-confidence, and more positive beliefs, more possibility thinking, more resourceful meanings, and so on, making each success easier than the last.

Such people also begin to attract resources and the help of other people–as, for instance, with the hospital patients described above who received more care and nurturing.

These winners also find themselves almost magnetically attracted to better, more resourceful situations, and to kinder, more loving, more helpful people–whereas those on the other side of the equation (including me, twenty years ago) tend to attract or be attracted to people who actually help them fail in various ways and help them feel worse about themselves.

And, finally, the winners’ interpretations of what is happening around them–in other words, what the events of their life seem to mean (including what failure and setbacks “mean”)–is different.


Excerpted from Learned helplessness (Why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) by Bill Harris, August 27th, 2008 - from his blog.

See the Centerpointe Research Institute site and click "blog" for rest of transcript - and to listen to his podcast.

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Bill HarrisBill Harris is a Certified Trainer of Neuro Linguistic Programming and is trained in Ericksonian Hypnosis.

He is a long time student of contemporary psychology, quantum mechanical physics, the evolution of non-linear systems (chaos theory) and the effects of a wide range of neurotechnologies on human change, evolution and healing.

He is a founding member of the Transformational Leadership Council started by Chicken Soup for the Soul author Jack Canfield, and is founder and director of Centerpointe Research Institute.

Also see more articles by Bill Harris

and free online course led by Bill Harris: The Masters of The Secret.

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   Related Talent Development Resources articles and pages:

Learned helplessness, mojo and serenity, by Douglas Eby

Meditation and mindfulness articles

Positive psychology bookmarks

positive psychology.

positive psychology : books


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