Deal With It: What We Can Learn About Life From Snipers and Fighter Pilots
A couple of weeks ago I read the book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. It’s written by Martin Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement and author of other famous books such as Authentic Happiness and Learned Helplessness.
In the book, he writes about a phenomenon called the heritability of dysphoria, which he calls the most important research discovery in the field of personality in the last quarter of the twentieth century. (According to Wikipedia, dysphoria is a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction, often accompanied with depression, anxiety, or agitation.)
I’ll let him explain what heritability of dysphoria exactly is:
It is true that most personality traits are highly heritable, which is to say that a person may have genetically inherited a strong predisposition to sadness or anxiety or religiosity. Dysphorias often, but not always, stem from those personality traits. Strong biological underpinnings predispose some of us to sadness, anxiety, and anger. Therapists can modify these emotions but only within limits. It is likely that depression, anxiety, and anger come from heritable personality traits that can be ameliorated, not wholly eliminated.”
In short: Personality traits are highly heritable, which is to say a person may be born with strong predispositions to sadness, anxiety, or other psychological ailments. Put differently, you may be blessed (or cursed?) with sadness genes or anxiety genes or anger genes.
The sucky part is this: If you happen to be genetically predisposed to sadness, anxiety, or anger, chances are you will never be able to completely overcome them. You can ameliorate these emotions, but not wholly eliminate them.
Take Martin Seligman for example. He explains that he is a born pessimist. And even though he knows and uses every therapeutic trick in the book about arguing against his automatic catastrophic thoughts, he still hears the voices frequently telling him that he’s a failure and life’s not worth living. He explains that he can usually turn down the volume of these voices by disputing them. But they will always be there, lurking in the background, ready to seize on any setback.
That sucks. And it’s certainly not what I wanted to hear when I picked up a book about the science of happiness and well-being. But it’s good to know the truth. And luckily, Martin Seligman shares some advice for *literally* dealing with those inheritable predispositions. He does so by using information from the way snipers and fighter pilots are trained.
Insights from Military Training
Did you know that it can take about twenty-four hours for a sniper to get into position? And then another thirty-six hours to get off the shot? This means that by the time they take the shot, the snipers often haven’t slept for two days. They’re dead tired.
Now, suppose the army went to psychotherapists and asked them how they would train the sniper. They would probably use wake-up drugs (Provigil for example) or psychological interventions that relieve sleepiness (e.g. using a rubber band on the wrist to snap the sniper into temporary alertness).