What Rats Can Teach Us About Getting ‘Unstuck’

Have you ever wondered why some people are able to change their diet and exercise habits and lose significant amounts of weight while other people get stuck in negative lifestyle choices that keep them overweight and unhealthy?  Why are some people able to stop the party lifestyle after college and live productive adult lives while others are never able to quit drinking too much or stop doing drugs?  How do some spouses abandon anger toward their partner after a rough patch in the marriage, while others stay stuck in those same negative resentful feelings?  We can frame this process in any context imaginable, but the question remains the same:  Why do some people stay stuck while others can find freedom?  

Believe it or not, the answer to this question might have been answered by researchers working with simple white rats in a lab.  These researchers put rats alone in a box with two sources of water available.  One water source contained pure fresh water and the other water source contained pure fresh water mixed with a healthy dose of cocaine.  Quite unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of rats that were placed into the box would become obsessed with the cocaine water and almost every rat eventually died of an overdose.  Essentially the rats became cocaine junkies.  

Although this research was replicated many times, one psychologist started to notice something interesting about the research.  The rat is put in the cage all alone.  It has nothing to do but take the drugs.  What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently?  So, he built what is now referred to as Rat Park.  Rat Park was a new box that featured an awesome little playground for rats.  Rat Park had little hamster wheels that the rats could run on, colorful balls and tunnels that the rats could play in, and perhaps most important, Rat Park had lots of other rats that were willing to interact and play together.  Rat Park also had two water sources:  one with pure fresh water and the other with pure fresh water mixed with cocaine.  

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them.  But what happened next was amazing.  The rats with good lives didn’t get stuck on the cocaine water.  They mostly avoided it, consuming less than 25% of cocaine water than the isolated rats used.  And NONE of them died of an overdose.  While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became obsessed with drugs, none of the rats who had a happy environment did. 

The relevance of Rat Park to all our lives is pretty incredible.  If we want to live a life where we grow and change and avoid getting stuck in unhealthy patterns we need to replicate at least two aspects of Rat park:  positive healthy relationships and a sense of engagement in life.  


Developing Healthy Relationships:

The most obvious distinction of Rat Park was the presence of other rats.  While the isolation of the first environment seemed to be highly correlated with creating rat drug addicts, there was something about having other rats to play with that allowed the residents of Rat Park to avoid getting stuck on cocaine.  It stands to reason then that our connections with others will help facilitate healthy living that isn’t characterized by compulsive unhealthy behaviors.  Research has been demonstrating this fact for years: there is a connection between supportive, empowering relationships and well-being.

When you start to think about the people you will bring with you on your journey to an unstuck life, zero in on individuals who are good communicators.  Good communication has less to do with talking and more to do with listening.  Don’t go looking for someone you think is smart and eloquent; look for someone you think is caring and empathetic.  Look for someone who has the capacity to zero in on you and what’s going on in your life at any given moment.  Look for people who talk less than they think, who reflect and respond to your experience.

In addition to being good communicators, the people you bring with you on your journey to become unstuck should be grace-oriented.  They should be the kind of people who can look beyond what is currently happening to see your potential—who you almost are.  Even in times when you struggle to beat the unhealthy patterns and find yourself feeling stuck, you need people in your life that will treat you like you are actively living the healthy life.  They should be your biggest fan in your continuing effort to pursue a life unstuck.  

The people you choose to support you in your efforts to make significant change in your life should be willing to be honest with you.  They should be willing to speak the truth in love to you on a consistent basis.  At times, you will need objective feedback from someone about your progress and to be held accountable to follow through with your new lifestyle choices over the long haul.  Whoever you choose to engage on this level shouldn’t be afraid to speak the truth to you, even when it is painful or challenging.  

Engagement in life:

In addition to interacting with other rats, Rat park also had a much more engaging environment.  It wasn’t a boring sterile environment, but rather a place where the rats could do something fun, exciting, and dare I say purposeful, every day.  This aspect of Rat Park has major implications for your life if you are ready to make some significant changes.  Psychologists have found repeatedly that people with a strong sense of purpose in life tend to fare better on several different measures of mental health, well-being and even cognitive functioning.  So, if you want to get unstuck in life, you are going to have to engage activities you find exciting and purposeful.  

Obviously, if you have been stuck in some unhealthy pattern, finding excitement and purpose might be a tall order.  But there are some things you can do that will allow you to re-engage a life that feels meaningful.  First, you should spend some time reflecting on what your individual talents and gifts really are.  What activities have you been involved in over the years that have made you feel alive and energized about life?  Next, look at the needs of the world, starting with your loved ones and community.  Ask yourself, “Given my unique gifts and talents, how can I make a difference?”  You might need to daydream a little bit about this one in order to make progress finding those things that make you feel engaged and alive.  Finding purpose in life has more to do with contemplation, thinking about past and future, and reflecting on purpose in life than it does with engaging in any one activity.  We can find meaning through any number of activities and situations, but we must do some mental work to find the right fit and make things come together.


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