Back in the 1950’s, Curt Richter, a well-known Harvard graduate and scientist with Johns Hopkins University, did a series of brutal experiments to try to determine how long rats could swim before they drowned. Apparently Newton had already cornered the Laws of Motion market, and this experiment was all that was left?
Richter’s plan was to try to measure the difference in survival rates between domestic rats; like the ones you see on Cinderella wearing hats and little rat aprons, and wild rats; who don’t wear aprons or hats but have the advantage of being excellent swimmers. Also, the savage and aggressive rats he used in his experiment had only recently been caught, and Richter fully expected them to fight hard for their survival. Surprisingly though, this wasn’t the case at all. Despite their ferocity, fitness and swimming ability, not one of the 34 wild rats tested survived more than a few minutes. Whereas the domesticated rats swam for an average of 15 minutes before drowning.
Richter reflected on what caused some of the rats to give up and decided that hope was the key factor in the willingness to struggle on. Where rats have perhaps been helped in the past and have hope of being saved and dressed in a nice lace trimmed bonnet, or even better, tiny rat arm floaties, they will keep fighting. However, when they don’t have this prior experience, they will give up quickly.
“What kills these rats?” he wondered. “Why do all of the fierce, aggressive, wild rats die promptly on immersion and only a small number of the similarly treated, tame, domesticated rats? The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight — it is rather one of hopelessness… the rats are in a situation against which they have no defense… they seem literally to ‘give up.’”
So, then, like any good Harvard trained rat drowning scientist, Richert decided to tweek his experiment; hypothesizing that introducing hope to rats would increase their survival times.
He then took other, similar rats (since the original rats were, um, dead) and put them in the buckets half filled with water. Like before, he observed them as they progressed towards drowning. This time though, he noted the moment at which the rats were on the cusp of giving up, and just before they died he rescued them. Plucked them from the water, dried them off with a rat size towel, reassured them that it had all been a terrible mistake, held them for a while, fed them bon bons and allowed them to rest.
And then, once they had stopped trembling in DRIPTSD (drowned rat induced post traumatic stress disorder) he put them BACK in the water to monitor their progress. “In this way,” he wrote, “the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless.” The rats also learned the Ricter was in fact a dirty rat himself, but he doesn’t include this data in the study.
And this is where it gets interesting. In this second test, the same rats who had swum to the point of failure after only a few minutes in the water, didn’t give up. Any guesses how much longer they kept treading water? Five minutes? Twenty minutes? One hour longer? Nope.
Get this. On average, rats who had HOPE swam sixty hours longer than their hopeless compatriots. SIXTY FREAKING HOURS longer. That’s like two and a half days straight of rat-paddling water, their wet furry heads bobbing bravely on the surface. A rat that was temporarily saved survived 240 times longer than one that was not given any intervention.
Which just goes to show who gives a rats ass about hope? Well, rats do, for one. And apparently humans for two.
So what’s the take away?
Don’t let Richter near rats or your children? Yes.
That Michael Phelps should watch rats for some tips on improving his form? Yes.
That I would be a lousy scientist because I could never throw a rat into a vat of water and watch it drown while holding a clip board and taking notes? Yes.
That saving a rat from drowning – even temporarily, gave that rat hope. Yes.
Hope is THE key factor in the willingness to struggle on.
“After elimination of hopelessness,” wrote Richter, “the rats do not die.”
Hope is an incredibly powerful and often overlooked psychological force. When we are hopeful that our circumstances are temporary and change is possible, we can achieve extraordinary feats. Hope is the catalyst that changes outcomes. Like rats, both domesticated and wild humans alike have higher levels of perseverance when they have hope. Because, as it turns out, we all need a reason to keep swimming.
So, what do you do if you feel like you have been treading water for way way WAY too long? What do you do if you feel like hope has drained from your life like a water tornado funneling down the tub. What do you do if, like me, you struggle to continue cultivating hope, especially when you feel like you are on hour 33 of navy seal rat training?
Try emotional eating. Although, it doesn’t usually work for me, but you might want to try it out, just to make sure it doesn’t actually work for you either. I suggest starting off with lava cake served warm with vanilla ice cream.
Or, you could work on meeting your basic human needs, which is apparently a thing. It’s called self care. Basic needs include things like making friends, being social, spending time with people who care and love you, and don’t drop you into a pool of water. Hopelessness is directly tied to disconnectedness.
Change your narrative. Hopelessness is based on an assumption; it is the brain saying what has happened before will happen again. It’s a protective measure from the old caveman days of fight or flight. Fire good. Rat scientist bad. But just because your brain chemicals hijack your brain, doesn’t mean you have to go along with their demands. You can rewrite the story. You can turn despair into joy.
Try adapting. Being adaptable can have a huge impact on our ability to be hopeful. Being adaptable is about being able to change and flow with whatever comes your way. When we are adaptable, we might still be in the water, but hope is the lifesaver we can continue holding onto, while we scan the horizon for dry land.
Focus on the things that fill you up with positivity, like that you are not a rat. The things that we put into our mind and body are what end up coming out of us. So if we put negativity in, we will get negativity back out. But it gets even more personalized than that, because what fills some people up, drags other people down. What buoys each of us up is specific, not universal. For example, spending time hiking in mountains fills me up and helps generate positivity. For my son Alex, being dragged up a mountain while his mother stops every few switchbacks to take pictures of pine trees or wide eye deer, does NOT fill him up with anything but bitterness and resentment. Focusing on the things that fill us up and make us happy can be life changing. But it is also two sided; when you increase the things that fill you up, you must also decrease the things that suck the life and positivity out of you. Like hiking with your son.
Gather people around you who amplify hope. Not only do we need to focus on things that will fill us up, but we also need to surround ourselves with people who keep us afloat. Hope is hard to sustain in isolation. When we are surrounded by like minded, hopeful people it is easier to be hopeful.
Focus on what you can do. Some things are out of our control. Lets be honest MOST things are out of our control, which can cause a lot of stress and unease, it is so important to focus on what we can do and put to the side what we can’t. Again, I reference emotional eating. You’re welcome.
When we feel overwhelmed with things we cannot control, we feel more negativity creeping into our lives. So to combat that, let’s focus on what we can do!
And finally remember to never trust a Harvard graduate research scientist from Hopkins when he asks you if you want to be part of a landmark study, and if the answer is yes, could please put on your swimming suit and climb in this tank of water….?
Now, I have purposefully left out the part where I’m pretty sure that those poor stupid, faithful rats STILL drowned after sixty hours of swimming. WHICH is to say, what if even after all this hope inspired water treading, that in the end, we sink anyway?
Because that happens. I know it does, I’ve witnessed it. Cancer patients die. Marriages fail. Ukraine gets invaded.
AND so why would we keep swimming, not knowing if after 60 hours of treading water we are just going to drown anyway?
I can’t tell you about why everyone else does, but I can tell you why I do. Because I am happier when I have hope. Because fear is a terrible friend. Because life goes on. Inexplicably, rain or shine, night or day, the world keeps turning even with invasions and pandemics and people losing their mother, or a child, or themselves.
I chose to live my life with hope, and to tread water like a Navy Seal, because I want my children to see that you have to keep swimming, that there is still delight to be found. That life, even a life filled with disappointment and heartache, still has moments of radiant beauty, of buoyant light, of inexplicable joy. Moments that you don’t want to miss.
And I keep swimming, because I DON’T actually know how, or when it is going to end. None of us do.
So keep swimming, keep trying, keep believing, and keep reaching out to those who are struggling to stay afloat. Let’s cheer each other on, and maybe even rescue a rat, sew her an apron, and remind her that hope floats.