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Day 02/04/2014

{ Rethinking Resilience, Part I } Positive Thinking, Negativity Bias, and Why I’m Leery about Lear

Spalding High-Bounce Ball


I was a bit jarred this week by a New York TImes piece about kids in a Syrian refugee camp performing a Shakespeare play. King Lear, to be precise.

“‘The show is to bring back laughter, joy and humanity,” said its director, Nawar Bulbul, a 40-year-old Syrian actor.'”

Say what, now?

To be sure, teenagers and dark, depressing stories are often a good combo — but I think that the “dark” and “depressing” should be relatable. Had the Syrian kids put on Hamlet, Othello, or Romeo and Juliet — any of the tragedies that deal directly with power struggles, personal weakness, difficult parents, dishonesty, friendship, love  — I wouldn’t balk. I could even see many of Shakespeare’s history plays, often excluded from high school curricula, resonating with these young refugees, given their first-hand experience with suffering caused by political machinations. But the choice of King Lear distressed me.

I taught King Lear to 16-year-olds for several years. But, truth be told, I am not convinced that teenagers — even Syrian teenagers who are alternately scared and bored by life in a refugee camp — will be, or even should be, deeply or personally moved by a story that is largely concerned with filial impiety, physical infirmity, dementia, and mortality (mortality by natural causes, that is). Those are the concerns of old folk. It almost seems biologically right that teenagers would shrug them off.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately. Or to put it more accurately: I’ve been thinking about other people’s resilience (on an epic scale) and my own (on a pretty mundane scale).

The epic scale came into sharp focus for me at a wonderful TEDx event I attended recently, entitled “Resilience: Consider the Uses of Adversity.” I would love to go into detail here, but I will wait until the event videos go online and you can watch them yourselves. In the meantime, if you need a gauge of what I mean by epic resilience, know this: one of the presenters was the woman whose three young daughters and parents perished on Christmas morning two years ago in a horrific house fire in Connecticut. Witnessing her strength, grace, and candor as she shared the painful and unfinished story of her survival — that was a once-in-a-lifetime gift I will never forget. Hers is epic resilience.

So the fact I can be felled by an overbaked birthday cake or a new dent in the car is a hard thing to accept — and a difficult thing to admit.

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The literature on fostering resilience emphasizes the importance of positivity and optimism. One widely accepted practice championed by Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology Center at UPenn (the birthplace of Angela Duckworth’s research on grit in students) is cultivating gratitude. For now, I’m focusing less on the method itself and more on its underlying rationale.

Gratitude is an effective means of increasing resilience because it helps counteract an inconvenient quirk of our psychological evolution: negativity bias.

Negativity bias is our natural tendency to highlight and remember negative experiences more than positive ones. Taking the time to feel and express gratitude, then, deliberately and explicitly incorporates positive thoughts and emotions into our daily existence. This points to the underlying characteristic of all resilience training: emphasizing positive experiences and foregoing the habit of interpreting one’s actions and one’s circumstances negatively.

Despite questions about its methodology, an attention-grabbing 2005 paper in American Psychologist that touted an optimal positivity ratio for flourishing — 2.9 positive exchanges for each negative one — is still regularly cited today. And not surprisingly — there is something comforting in the notion that resilience boils down to a numbers game, along these lines: Fill your mind with enough positive thoughts to outnumber the negative ones, and you’ll be more resilient. 

To be sure, not all positive thoughts are created equal. Hours spent watching cute cat videos don’t count. Conversely, not all negative thoughts are damaging. Sometimes they are necessary for our safety.

But within reason, it is safe to say that laughter and joy — and regular expressions of gratitude, which help maintain our ability to laugh and feel joy — constitute some of the best soil for seeds of resilience.

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Which brings me back to why I’m leery about King Lear.

I assume the director chose Lear as a reflection of the Syrian children’s suffering, which is tragically part of their day-to-day existence. And I accept the argument that such suffering can benefit from the affirmation and catharsis of expressing and releasing one’s own pain through the story of another.

As Edgar says in Act III of Lear:

When we our betters see bearing our woes,
We scarcely think our miseries our foes.

And to be clear, the Times piece gives plenty of evidence that the kids felt pride and value in the performance.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that a play of “laughter [and] joy,” which Lear simply is not, would have created sorely needed positivity for those kids.

Let’s assume a genuinely happy play would have led to positive thoughts outnumbering negative ones in the minds of those kids, even if only for a short while. For me, this presents two questions:

What benefits — what reframed perspectives, what relief from negativity and trauma, what new ideas and possibilities — might those kids have had access to?

To what extent does the principle of positive thinking mean that occupying a space of pain and suffering, even in art, may be counterproductive to healing? 

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In my next post, I’ll be looking at the seven steps for increasing resilience as laid out in Andrew Shatté and Karen Reivich’s underappreciated 2003 book The Resilience Factor. Reivich is a co-director of the Penn Resiliency Program, a “group intervention” and resilience training course for late elementary and middle school students.

In the meantime, I’ll also be looking for answers to those two questions above. If you have answers, I invite you, as always, to comment.

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