"Learned helplessness is the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn't matter.
Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness.
An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness."
-- Martin Seligman from "Learned Optimism"
Learned helplessness, the theory was developed by Seligman and his colleagues in their work with dogs.
Imagine two dogs: the first dog is slightly shocked but has a lever he can push that will stop the shocks. He quickly learns to stop the shocks. He's in good "psychological" shape. A second dog does not have a lever. He can't stop the shocks. Rather, the shocks stop whenever the first dog hits his lever. So, in effect, the shocks are random. Our second dog "learns" that he is helpless in the face of these shocks.
Here's what's fascinating: the dogs are then moved to a new area and taught a new way to avoid the shocks. So, now they can BOTH avoid the shocks at will. Remarkably, although the first dog avoids the shocks, the second dog curls up in the corner and whimpers as the shock--which he could have avoided--is administered.
So, how does this apply to humans? In short, we "learn" helplessness when we believe that nothing we do will change our circumstances and then, effectively, give up. This learned helplessness is one of the strongest correlates of depression.
The solution? We need to change our explanatory styles.
Learned optimism is not a rediscovery of the "power of positive thinking."
Changing the destructive things you say to yourself when you experience the setbacks that life deals all of us is the central skill of optimism.