The Art of Doing

How Superachievers Do What They Do, and How They Do It So Well

What Dogs Can Teach Us About Coping with Holiday Stress

What we learned about “learned helplessness” and surviving the holidays.

Photo by Theron Humphrey

Imagine a dog that is so habitually electroshocked that when it is presented with an opportunity to escape further shocks he or she just gives up. Instead of forming an escape plan the dog acts as if the pain is inevitable and accepts it.

Sound familiar?

During the holidays as we gather with our families many of us can feel a sense of helplessness in the face of destructive family dynamics—whether it’s the presence of a meddling aunt, an overpowering mother, a caustic uncle, bickering in-laws or an alcoholic father.

In 1967 psychologist Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania performed an experiment in which he segregated dogs into groups and gave them electric shocks. Some dogs had access to levers that could terminate the shocks. Others had no way to stop the shocks. Next each dog was put into a box divided in half by a low partition. One side of the box’s floor was electrified and the other was not. The dogs that had been able to stop the shocks in the first part of the experiment, jumped over the partition to the non-electrified floor to escape the shocks. The dogs that hadn’t been given a lever to stop the shocks didn't jump. They didn't even try. They lay down on the electrified floor and whined.

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From this experiment Seligman developed the theory of “learned helplessness.” Animals and humans who believe that they have no control over their circumstances will often give up and accept painful situations.

And here we go again, every holiday season, back to the negative family patterns that we often feel that we have no control over. Like Seligman’s dogs sometimes we just accept the painful situation without trying to make things better.

Thinking about this annual holiday dilemma we called neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak who we had interviewed for our upcoming book, “The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well,” for a chapter on “How to Optimize Your Brain.” Restak, author of dozens of books on the brain gave us his perspective on gaining a sense of control during the emotionally fraught holiday season.

Restak’s tips:

Take the Long view. When you’re immersed in an uncomfortable situation at a family gathering it can seem as if it will last forever. But to gain some control remind yourself it will only last for a couple of days and that, “This too shall pass.” When you’re young it can be hard to transcend time but it gets easier as you get older and you’ve gone through 60 Christmases instead of 16.

Look for what you have in common. Members of an extended family often have contradictory viewpoints on religion, politics or just about anything. They can also belong to different socio-economic groups. Instead of focusing on these differences, look for what you actually have in common with each other. Imagine yourself as the other person and try to hear what they’re hearing. And even though some psychiatrists don’t like the idea of environmental manipulation a holiday meal can go much more smoothly when certain people are placed at opposite ends of the table.

Find the Harmony. There’s a famous story about the late Japanese Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki. He was invited to a dinner by a wealthy New York City patron—and what did they serve but steak. For one of the only times in his life, Suzuki ate the meat. Why? Because Suzuki said the most important thing in that situation was “harmony.” It would have been very insulting, he said, if he had sat there and eaten nothing. When you find yourself in a negative exchange, you can apply Suzuki’s lesson and do whatever is in your power to bring about harmony.

Reach out. Loneliness can be very debilitating. For people who are by themselves those feelings can be experienced most acutely during the holidays. I know someone who finds a friend who’s alone to invite to her holiday celebration every year. Think of it as extra credit—a generous act that can also have a positive impact on your own family.

Restak offered one last piece of advice from his own experience, “When I find myself having negative feelings about someone at a holiday gathering I try to keep my eye on the ball and remember the positive reasons of why we are all here.”

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Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield are authors of The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well (Plume, Jan 29, 2013).

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