A few weeks ago, I learned about a(n infamous) study done back in 1957 by Dr. Curt Richter. In it, he and his team did experiments on rats. They found that if the water temperature wasn’t too hot or too cold, domesticated Norwegian rats were able to swim around 40-60 hours on average. But when they put wild Norwegian rats into the exact same situation, they would would die within 15 minutes. They were the same breed of rat; the only difference was one group was domesticated and the other was not.
The disparity of results for the two groups was significant, and so they tried to track down what may have contributed to it. In further experiments, they found that if they put the wild rats into the water, and then pulled them out after a few minutes — and then repeated this a few times before the final testing — the rats would end up lasting about the same length of time as the domesticated group when the final test was run.
Why did these few additional immersions in the water increase the endurance of these rats from 15 minutes to dozens of hours? The team postulated that the deaths were more psychological than physiological; that the real issue was one of hopelessness.
The wild rats were not used to being confined, so as soon as they were thrown into this new environment, one which seemed impossible to escape, they simply gave up. But if they had already been exposed to this same environment, and had then been removed, they knew that there was a chance the researchers could take them out of the water at any moment. It was no longer entirely hopeless, and they ended up lasting way longer than they would otherwise.
Putting the ethics of the study aside for a moment, these findings highlight the role hope can play in our lives. Being in a state of hopelessness can strip us of our energy and motivation to continue. But finding hope can provide the strength to endure far longer than we may have expected.
Difficult times are, by definition, difficult. But they’re nothing compared to the weight of hopelessness. Which means that giving the gift of hope to someone who needs it may be one of the most valuable gifts we could ever give.