Learned Helplessness of a Nation & Learned Optimism of a Leader

Half drought and half abundance tree standing landscape background

Nearly 50 years ago, Martin Seligman and Steve Maier experimentally proved that human beings or animals can learn to become helpless when they experience uncontrollable situations and even give up avoiding aversive stimuli. Known as the Theory of Helplessness, this line of scientific inquiry is backed by robust research and has a major impact in explaining several psychological phenomena.

I am afraid that most of our people have plunged into an enduring state of helplessness. The state of Helplessness has three hallmarks: Contingency, Cognition and Behaviour. Contingency relates to the controllability of the situation. Pakistanis, for more than 75 years, and particularly in the last 15 months, have learned that they have little or no control over numerous domains of their lives. Cognition relates to attributions, that is, how individuals explain the causes of setbacks, failures and adversities to themselves. It is the word in their hearts and heads. In the Helplessness theory, most attribute the causes of their adversities to either their bad luck or forces outside. Given the dire socio-economic situation and massive brain drain, one can surmise the attributions of most Pakistanis.  Behaviour relates to action or inaction. Believing people cannot control much in their lives and that external forces are responsible for all their adversities will most likely result in inaction. It is the Learned Helplessness of 75 years that has kept beleaguered citizens of Pakistan.

Fine-tuning his seminal work on Learned Helplessness, Seligman later discovered that not everyone he tried to make helpless succumbed. Seligman and his colleagues demonstrated that individuals taught mastery over aversive situations did not become helpless even when they encountered negative situations. Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale proposed that people will attribute (explain to themselves) helplessness to a particular cause in the face of uncontrollable circumstances. 

People then determine if the cause will have a permanent, pervasive and widespread impact on their future agency. Imran Khan seems to be one of those individuals who did not develop Helplessness despite experiencing aversive situations. 

Let me explain it through the most public situations.  The 1992 World Cup of Cricket. When the chips were done, and Pakistan was almost out of contention for the semi-finals, with one win from the first five matches, most captains would have given up. Khan, like many others, could have explained the causes of this dire situation such as, It’s due to me (or I don’t have control over how players perform), this debacle (followed by the 1987 World Cup Semi-final defeat at the home turf), will be the lasting legacy of my captaincy and will tint my other accomplishments. Khan resisted. Perhaps, Khan explained to himself, it is not entirely because of me or because of others; it is, in part, due to circumstances (he missed two five matches due to injury), and another World Cup defeat will not likely tint my other accomplishments. Perhaps not precisely in these words, but having researched resilience and well-being and taught and trained alongside Seligman for the past twenty years, I doubt Khan’s inner dialogue was drastically different. Much like Learned Helplessness, 

Learned Optimism has three components. Permeance (the adversity will not be permanent), Pervasiveness (adversity will not ruin everything) and Personalization (adversity is not entirely due to me or entirely due to others).

Imran Khan, I believe, is a bright illustration of Learned Optimism. His Learned Optimism must have resulted in accomplishing monumental tasks of making cancer Hospitals where the needy get free treatment (a luxury not available in the United States), a world-class university, and many more. It must be his Learned Optimism, now shaped and refined by his religious convictions, that a sense of equanimity envelopes him despite living in a tiny cell with an open toilet, wet mattress and crawling creatures around.

It is also a colossal tragedy of epic proportions that Khan’s Learned Optimism might only be outdone by the collective Learned Helplessness of our nation. Khan is far from perfect, but he is likely our only hope and perhaps last for a long time.

I am keenly aware that as an expat Pakistani, I cannot fully empathize with my fellow Pakistanis, who seem to be chronically trapped in the whirlpool of material needs. But I know from well-done research that our last fulfillment comes when we meet our meaning needs—- the quintessential attribute of a well-lived life.

Imran Khan is the only leader who constantly reminds us of our meaning and purpose. Let us not diminish his voice and his optimism.


Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49.

Martinez-Calderon, J., Garcia-Munoz, C., Heredia-Rizo, A. M., & Cano-Garcia, F. J. (2023). Meaning and purpose in life, happiness, and life satisfaction in cancer: Systematic review with meta-analysis. Psycho-oncology.  https://doi.org/10.1002/pon.6135

Peterson, C. (1993). Learned helplessness: a theory for the age of personal control / Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier, Martin E.P. Seligman. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism: how to change your mind and your life. Vintage Books.

Imran Khan, Full Address Oxford Union (2013). https://youtu.be/-UAqOQf8n6c. Accessed August 8, 2023.

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Dr. Tayyab Rashid is a clinical and school psychologist, based in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Rashid is also a faculty associate with the Human Flourishing Program Harvard University, and VIA Institute on Character. Dr. Rashid’s expertise includes strength-based clinical psychotherapy with complex mental health challenges, resilience and posttraumatic growth. Dr. Rashid has also worked with individuals experiencing severe trauma, including survivors of the Asian Tsunami of 2004, journalists who have worked in high conflict zones and survivors of mass shootings. Dr. Rashid has delivered over fifty invited talks and keynotes and trained mental health professionals and educators internationally. Published in academic journals, Dr. Rashid’s book Positive Psychotherapy (2018), co-written with Martin Seligman, is considered one of the most comprehensive clinical resources in the field and has been translated into several languages so far. Dr. Rashid won the Chancellor Award (2018) from U of Toronto and the Outstanding Practitioner Award (2017) from the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA).


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