Before I write this story, I just want to mention that I am no expert on social behavior or a psychologist by any means, however I can tell the difference between a happy person and a miserable person. You can see it and sometimes even feel it. This is a story about realizing how important it is to be you and as the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote “to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to change you is the hardest thing of all.” Hard but well worth the struggle as you shall see.
The infamous study is known as Rat Park and is a fascinating take on behavior and controlled environments. I am generally not a fan of animal studies due to the sometimes unethical treatment of laboratory animals however scientists use rats because they share a surprising number of similar characteristics to human. Physically, psychologically, behaviorally and socially and because of these similarities, rats have been instrumental in saving human lives due to their use in laboratories.
The premise of this study conducted in 1981 by psychologist Bruce Alexander shows that when you give rats a “Rat Paradise” they will avoid addictive drugs.
Let me explain:
He took two sets of Lab Rats. For the first group, he built a 200 square foot rodent paradise called Rat Park. These were luxurious accommodations for all their favorite pastimes – mingling, food & play toys, mating and raising pups. Stuff that rats in their world like to do!
The second group of rats was housed in traditional, metal cages.
The psychologist offered both groups a choice of plain water or sugar water laced with morphine. Many times over, the traditional caged rats became instant addicts. Yet, the residents of Rat Park avoided the drug treated sugar water. Add to that, even when rats were addicted beforehand (by the experimenter), then put into Rat Park, they stopped taking the drug treated sugar water. Wow. Think about that for a moment. Two completely different environments, one where there is freedom to be and enjoyment, the other drudgery and misery.
How does this relate to us humans? Are we taught to find joy, purpose in our lives, be ourselves? Or are we pressured into conventional roles so that we fit to conform to society’s rules, you know like go to school, get a job, get married, have 2 kids, work for 40 years, retire then die.
Do you think there are parallels between junkie rats and humans who are addicted to something? I think we can hypothesize that if you spend hours playing roles that don’t match your innate personality, you will most likely dull that pain with alcohol, food, shopping, gambling or drugs. Miserable with your job, go out and drink a bottle of wine (or 2) after work. Can’t stand your boyfriend, eat a bag of chips and drink 2 cans of soda. And it’s not just experiences; I think your own mind can create a prison as well. You have an idea stuck in your head like you need to act a certain way at work. This belief traps you and you gulp happy pills by the dozen while fantasizing about squishing your coworker’s head in the photocopier machine.
My point is this, the rats in Rat Park were lucky to be hand-picked to live in paradise. You know what though; we humans have the incredible ability to envision our own Rat Parks. We can make choices that will get us closer to being happier and freer. Even if this Rat Park smells like a rat, it stands to reason that life is a series of small choices and we can choose to be happy. As the famous poet and writer Oscar Wilde once wrote “be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” You were born to stand out, not fit in.