Helplessness by Martin Seligman

Helplessness by Martin Seligman is a book I read back when I was a teenager, and all I could remember about it was that it had made me angry for a couple of reasons: (1) the animal experiments it described; (2) the way it seemed to be saying “Just stop being depressed! Simple!”

Re-reading it, I enjoyed it more. Partly because I have a better appreciation for reading things I don’t entirely agree with; and partly because (probably for the same reason) I don’t think Teenage Scar gave it enough of a chance.

Positive psychology as a movement is not something I can get behind. There’s way too much of a focus on pretending everything is fine and refusing to look at the darkness; and as a goth who is training to be a therapist, that’s pretty much anathema to everything I’m about.

However, despite disagreeing with most positive psychologists on most things, there were still some themes in Seligman’s book that I thought merited consideration. For example, the idea that finding purpose and meaning in life can help with depression, à la Victor Frankl.

“A drive for competence… is, from my point of view, a drive to avoid helplessness…. Competence may be a drive to avoid the fear and depression induced by helplessness.”

I liked that quote, and I agree with it. Or at least, I have seen it played out in my own life. Aiming at increasing competence has been one of the ways I have fended off my own feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when they have arrived.

That is not to say, of course, that simply trying to be better at stuff will mean you’re not depressed anymore. That’s one of the pitfalls of many positive psychology buffs, imo. As is the “It’ll all be better if you just think more positively.” No. I disagree.

But I *do* agree that finding meaning; finding something you love and can cling to; finding, in short, a reason to get up in the morning, however small and insignificant it might seem; can be one of the keys to better mental health.

Here is one of the main reasons why I get up in the morning, because cat photo.


As a control freak, I also appreciated Seligman’s idea that it is not just the lack of love and affection but also the lack of control that has a strong negative impact on children (particularly infants) who have suffered severe trauma. His notes on Hospitalism are worth a read.

So, while I wouldn’t jump to recommend this book to everybody, I did get more out of it than the last time I read it, because I gave it more of a chance, and there’s a lesson in that, I think.

However, if you’re looking for a book that talks about how finding or creating meaning in life can help people to recover from deep trauma, I would recommend Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl rather than this book.


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