The Benefits of Optimism

Have you seen or read Silver Linings Playbook and/or Life of Pi? If you haven’t, I couldn’t recommend them more. My latest piece was actually inspired by these two phenomenal books/movies. In the piece, titled “The Benefits of Optimism Are Real,” I argue that a positive outlook on life is the most important predictor of resilience–or how people cope with suffering. It’s not just Hollywood magic, as some critics at The New Yorker and the New York Times have argued.

Here’s an excerpt of the piece, which was published at The Atlantic:

Another best picture nominee, Life of Pi, employs a similar device. Pi finds himself aboard a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger in the aftermath of a shipwreck that has his entire family. Lost at sea in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days — starved, desperate, and forced into a game of survival with the tiger — Pi pushes forward, even though he, like Pat, has lost everything. Pi says, “You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

Pi’s resilience is incredible once you realize what happens on board the lifeboat and how Pi copes with the tragedy that he witnesses and endures. There’s more to the story than the boy and the tiger. Though what really happened is terrible, Pi chooses to tell a different story. His parallels what really happened, but is beautiful not bleak, transcendent not nihilistic.

“Which story do you prefer?” he asks at the end.

This questions turns out to matter a great deal if you are trying to figure out who grows after trauma and who gets swallowed up by it, a question that each movie addresses and that psychologists have been grappling with for years. Think back to the last time you experienced a loss, setback, or hardship. Did you respond by venting, ruminating, and dwelling on the disappointment, or did you look for a faint flash of meaning through all of the darkness — a silver lining of some sort? How quickly did you bounce back — how resilient are you?

The New Yorker’sRichard Brody criticized Silver Linings Playbook for its sentimentality and “faith-based view of mental illness and, overall, of emotional redemption.” The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott made a similar, if predictable, criticism of Life of Pi: “The novelist and the older Pi are eager…to repress the darker implications of the story, as if the presence of cruelty and senseless death might be too much for anyone to handle…Insisting on the benevolence of the universe in the way that Life of Pidoes can feel more like a result of delusion or deceit than of earnest devotion.”

But these criticisms miss the point. First, they fail to understand why these two strange and idiosyncratic movies, both based on novels, resonated with so many millions of people. Their themes of resilience speak to each of us — and there is a reason for that. The key insight of each movie is, whether their creators realized it or not, grounded in a growing body of scientific research, which Brody and Scott overlook.

You can continue reading the piece here.

I’d be curious to know if any readers read/saw Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook and what you thought of them (i.e., If you were as moved by these movies/books as I was).

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  

newsletter-signup

One response to “The Benefits of Optimism

  1. I’ve always felt that contemporary cynicism about faith comes not so much from our education as our comfort. Subcultures in which large groups of people who are not facing great trials can gather tend to miss the point of faith–and how it relates much more closely to suffering than intellectual questions.

Comments are closed.