(Co-written by David B. Feldman PhD)
It's something to rejoice about! Monty Python, the iconic comedy troupe, has reunited on stage this week. It's a big year for the group, given that it also marks the 25th anniversary of one of the their seminal achievements, The Life of Brian. Over the past few days, we've taken a quick-and-dirty poll of friends and Python aficionados, asking what stuck with them most from this classic film. The winner: the final scene, in which our titular hero finds himself crucified. The man next to him, sharing a similar fate, implores poor Brian in song to "always look on the bright side of life."
Great scene, but poor advice. Yes, the scene was meant to be tongue-in-cheak. But it's a piece of advice many people follow. So, for a moment, let's take the song literally and look at why it might not be great advice...
"Some things in life are bad. They can really make you mad. Other things just make you swear and curse."
So far, the song holds true. To leave comedy behind for a moment and focus on brutal reality, there are a lot of things to make us swear and curse. This year roughly 13 million people will be diagnosed with cancer, 10 million people will be affected by traumatic brain injuries, and 50 million people will survive car wrecks. In bringing up these statistics, we aren't trying to scare anyone. But, according to the research, some kind of trauma will occur at some point in the lives of somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of us. So, the majority of us will face the task of recovering and rebuilding from such adversity. What helps?
"When you're chewing on life's gristle, don't grumble. Give a whistle.
And this'll help things turn out for the best."
While thinking positively is certainly better than thinking negatively, life probably isn't so simple. There's nothing inherently bad about thinking positive, yet to do so at the expense of denying reality is potentially damaging. In writing our book, Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success, we reviewed more than two decades of research on resilience and performed over 100 interviews with trauma survivors in search of the factors that help people to bounce back, and in may cases, to bounce forward, after tragedy. Whether it was a leukemia sufferer who went on to win Olympic Gold, a young man who permanently lost his sight and ended up being the first to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat, or a woman who survived genocide in Rwanda to eventually become an Obama appointee, we were surprised that many told us that positive thinking had very little, if anything, to do with their recovery. So, what did?
"If life seems jolly rotten, there's something you've forgotten, and that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing. When you're feeling in the dumps, Don't be silly chumps. Just purse your lips and whistle. That's the thing."
Whistling and dancing might take you away from a terrible situation temporarily, but research shows that more lasting resilience doesn't necessarily flow from forcing yourself to think positively.
The supersurvivors we interviewed told us about a much more realistic, yet still forward-looking kind of thinking, than simplistic positive thinking. We've come to call this kind of approach Grounded Hope. Building partially on the research of University of Kansas psychologist C. R. Snyder, it's an approach to life that's more realistic than positive thinking, yet more positive than pessimism.
The "grounded" part of Grounded Hope refers to being grounded in a realistic understanding of one's life and oneself. Supersurvivors seem to avoid the temptation to paint a smiley face over what has happened to them, to deny it or distort it to make themselves feel better temporarily. Instead, they bravely look reality in the face and say, "Yes, I've just lost my leg in accident," or "Yes, I'm only 24 and have lost my vision." While this may at first sound depressing, the power in this approach is that by seeing the situation clearly, without distorting it or trying to make it seem better than it is, it's possible to work toward recovery.
But supersurvivors don't stop there. Next, they ask the incredibly hopeful and forward-looking question: "Given what's happened to me, what am I going to do about it? How can I build a better life on top of it?" They marshal their personal strengths and nurture confidence in their ability to plot out what happens next. They set goals for themselves and find sources of motivation to pursue those goals. This is the "hope" part of Grounded Hope. Over two decades of research have shown that such hope is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety, as well as greater satisfaction and meaning in life.
"For life is quite absurd. And death's the final word. You must always face the curtain with a bow. Forget about your sin. Give the audience a grin. Enjoy it. It's your last chance, anyhow."
As the song takes this sharp turn toward existentialism, we think Monty Python has finally got it right with this line. Here, the lyrics begin to mirror the science, which explains how, under some circumstances, reflecting on death can lead to a better life.
While writing the book, we met a designer and urban planner named Candy Chang. She was leading a successful life, but had not given much thought to the meaning of her life until a close fiend passed away suddenly. This event threw Candy for a loop. For the first time, she viscerally realized that anything could happen at any time, and that life could be shorter than any of us anticipate. She began examining her values and asking herself what she really wanted in life. This motivated her to move to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, with the motivation to help in the rebuilding efforts.
Her particular neighborhood was hard hit, and she felt as though what it needed was an emotional center. So she and a few friends got up one morning and brought buckets of chalkboard paint to one of the neighborhood's most bombed-out-looking houses. She painted an entire side of the house, making it into a blackboard. At the top, she stenciled in white paint: "Before I die I want to..." and drew 80 blanks underneath. She left some chalk behind for people to fill in answers. But, honestly, she thought little would come of it. The house wasn't on a main road, and she figured that by the next day gang members might even graffiti over it. But to her surprise, the next morning all 80 blanks were filled in, with answers spilling into the margins: "I want to see my child graduate." "I want to found a company." "I want to climb a mountain." She erased the wall, and the next day others filled in the blanks once again. These walls now span 75 countries.
It's just a wall, just chalk. But what's incredible is that, for the eighty people who filled in those blanks, we can see that just below the surface rests amazing dreams. And it's probably that way for most of us. But we often don't share these dreams with others. We keep them to ourselves, and most of the time we don't act them. There's something about reflecting on our mortality that allows us to access those dreams in a more vivid or motivating way.
University of Minnesota psychology researcher Philip Cozzolino, along with Angela Staples, Lawrence Meyers, and Jamie Samboceti, performed a series of experiments in which they asked participants to reflect upon death in deeply personal way. They not only asked participants to imagine their deaths, but also prompted them, among other things, to reflect on the life they had led up to that point. It's reminiscent of the way some survivors of traumatic experiences say their lives flash before them, or the question Candy Chang asked passersby to consider. As a result, participants who normally were oriented toward extrinsic goals (e.g., money and fame) became less greedy and more spiritual.
"Always look on the bright side of death, just before you draw your terminal breath."
While looking on the bright side of life is certainly preferable to the alternative, there's something to be said (and sung and whistled) about bravely facing the present, and boldly embracing the future. In the meantime, we can always embrace the past with another viewing of The Life of Brian.
Lee Daniel Kravetz and David B. Feldman PhD are the authors of Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering & Success (Harpercollins, Summer 2014)