story

25
NOV
2014

Positive Psychology, Lindsay Doran, and Story

Many months ago I attended a lecture by Lindsay Doran on Psychology as an approach to understanding story. It was hosted by the Blacklist.  For anyone interested, her Ted Talk covers much of the same material.

Ms. Doran is a studio executive that has helped in the development of a number of films, including recently The Lego Movie. She also has a fondness for Positive Psychology. For those not familiar, the wiki page is actually pretty good on the subject. In short, it’s an approach to human psychology that focuses on the positive side of functioning, such as how to become optimistic, or what helps someone thrive rather than removing a problem or deficit.

I believe this is a valuable approach to understanding the human condition, and adds a necessary perspective to a world very preoccupied with pathology and problems. Dr. Martin Seligman is one of the most influential leaders in Positive Psychology, authoring such books as “Learned Optimism,” and “Flourish.” In a world so focused on tragedy all the time, turning our attention to developing the good things makes complete sense to me.

Doran went on to reference Seligman’s core components of well-being, namely PERMA:
Positive Emotion – Simply, about feeling good.
Engagement – Being absorbed in a process or activity.
Relationships – Feeling connected and involved with others
Meaning – Finding purposeful existence
Accomplishment – Achievement as a form of success

Seligman identifies these as the components of having a fulfilled life. Doran believes they are the key to what makes certain movies successful.

Doran even uses these ideas (PERMA) as a lens to identify what makes films inspiring or uplifting. She further draws conclusions about the movie industry going too dark, and that just as positive psychology redirected therapy towards the positive, lighthearted films without tragedy (like Airplane, Young Frankenstein) are fun for fun’s sake. She believes there should be more of these lighthearted fun comedies that help us to vicariously just have a joyful experience.

I agree with much of her message, though I believe she might be missing some points.

Regarding PERMA, Doran references an audience researcher who stated that he knew that people don’t really care about accomplishments. So even though we can be fixated on an achievement appearing to be the entire point of a story, we only care about it when it is tied to other things in the life of the character. So the A of PERMA seems less important.

Positive emotions obviously have their own point, and I would agree that lighthearted films serve a great purpose. Laughing feels good. Sometimes we just feel like a comedy for ninety minutes.

On the other hand, positive emotions on their own lack context. Sometimes what makes comedy so wonderful is that it is “comic relief,” as in relief from heavier topics. A comedic movie is really our comic relief from the heaviness of everyday life.

Movies serve a greater purpose than simply to entertain or distract. They serve a purpose in reflecting on the world, and in helping us gain perspective on how to live. Doran herself states that one of the purposes of movies is to answer the question of how we should live.

It is in that question that I believe Doran loses focus. She emphasizes the Positive Emotion of PERMA, while not sufficiently emphasizing the Meaning. I think she nails it with the importance of relationships, and has a direct point that women want to watch movies about relationships, and that men can only handle the relationships indirectly. Accomplishment in movies only feel good when it’s shared with someone.

This focus though on accomplishment and relationships, as well as on the positive, misses the reason that the industry has turned dark. We suffer. People feel a sense of suffering every day, and they are looking for some way to understand that. They are looking for meaning from it. And in the absence of meaning, they at least want to not feel alone in it. They want resonance, and portraying a dark theme that matches what they feel about the world resonates with them.

I posit the idea of suffering and sacrifice as being important values. In writing we set up stakes for protagonists, and often put them through hell to earn their accomplishment. That protagonist suffers and sacrifices, and what they do with that suffering and sacrifice gives meaning.

In that way it is the transformation of negative into positive that we want. We want ways to get through our own suffering, whether that be light movies (respite), or darker movies finding meaning (transforms suffering into something useful). Dark movies can masquerade as jaded, when really they may be vicarious relationship movies, where we can feel connected to someone who has suffered the way we’ve suffered. Which comes back to the idea of not wanting to feel alone. We connect to a character. We don’t want them to die because we want to stay connected to them.

Of course I agree with the point made by many (including Doran) that our fascination with pathology and problems, with what’s “wrong” can miss the larger picture. That process can even result in getting stuck in bad emotions, such as wallowing. Yet a focus on the Positive Emotions of positive psychology seems to neglect the real human suffering that occurs.

We become whole not through avoiding the negative but through owning it and transforming it.

Doran pulls many references from the AFI list of top 100 films to explore her hypothesis.

I’d like to look at a different movie, that of Cast Away.

At the surface it’s a story about survival. Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) gets deserted on an island, away from the love of his life. He suffers. He learns to survive. He becomes so lonely he makes a relationship with a volleyball to have a friend. He builds himself a boat and gets away. We feel for him throughout. It’s primal. We see him cling to the last remnants of civilization in a beautiful butterfly on a box. He gets home, and he loses again. The love of his life has married someone else.

I love this movie. It was a massive success in the US and internationally. It doesn’t have many positive emotions at all. He loses his fiancee. He doesn’t accomplish anything but survival. His relationships are almost nil. He loses his entire identity. So it should be depressing. And yet there’s a transformative hope built into the film. We watch him suffer, and he finds a way out of it. There’s a lovely monologue of him talking about his loneliness and despair, and how he just remembers to keep breathing. A message for us all.

Finally he delivers this box that had kept him inspired. He meets a woman and we have a glimpse of hope. Maybe he was meant to meet her all along. Or maybe that’s my interpretation of it.

It’s a beautiful story of survival.

Viktor Frankl pioneered his own approach to therapy long before Seligman, which focused on meaning. I recommend everyone should read his book Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a quick read. He was a psychiatrist who survived the concentration camps. At the time the wisdom was that when men have enough taken away from them, they’ll revert to animals. His experience was that people could be incredibly kind, and that those who survived had a reason to live. They found meaning and purpose in their suffering, even if it was just to survive to fulfill their purpose.

Now I don’t want to pretend that suffering, sacrifice, and transforming it into meaning is the key to what makes all movies powerful. Doran has clearly broke some great conceptual ground in thinking about films with a lens other than traditional formulas.  But the Meaning component seems underemphasized by Doran.  I heard many that night say that it was a transformational experience for them, yet in the vein that I hear so many emphasize “positive thinking” as a solution to the parts of themselves they dislike.

When we overvalue any one side, we miss the whole picture.

16
SEP
2013

Portraying Mental Illness in Story

Mental illness as a term gets thrown around a lot. It’s used by politicians as a scapegoat for problems or a target for funding. It’s sought by individuals to find meaning to their experience, or sometimes a justification for their difficulties. It’s a thing, talked about like any other disease. And yet the term is a lumping of many conditions under a single term, as if all mental illnesses are the same. They are not, but we talk about them that way and “let the experts sort it out.” I get that. At the same time it maintains the mystique and stigma behind mental illness. Because that is what the average person fears – the unknown. By keeping it labeled as one thing, whether that be to ostracize, excuse, or empathize, without educating the public more, we continue to leave it as a large unknown. So the stigma continues.

Media portrayals of mental illness usually fall into one of three categories:

1. Spectacle

2. Educational

3. As a relatable factor to human struggle and suffering

"Crazy" blonde girl.

The first reason clearly stands out as the most popular use of mental illness in the media. I can’t count the number of characters nowadays in movies and TV who are given mental illnesses primarily for the purpose of making them “different” or interesting. This misses the boat though, particularly when added to secondary characters or even worse, villains. The spectacle of the mentally ill involves the “crazy person,” usually meaning dangerous or unpredictable, which can be used for plot turns or as an explanation for the odd character. “He’s just nuts, man.” No one is “just nuts.” We miss the truth when we oversimplify.

Of course spectacle is the purpose of much of film and television. It’s entertainment. It serves its purpose in our lives. Using mental illness to have the “crazy guy” in a group of friends just becomes cliché, though. It isn’t that entertaining, anymore. And in the world of political correctness, it’s offensive.

Any good writer will not hold back from offending now and then, sometime more than that, all for the purpose of telling a good story. I don’t hold back, and others shouldn’t if it truly enhances the story. Adding in a mental illness just to add a character quirk can lessen the story, though. If the intention is to make the person more interesting, but is done only as a spectacle, where it doesn’t serve the larger story, then it hurts rather than helps.

I’m watching “The Bridge” right now, an FX TV show where one of the leads, Sonya Cross, appears to have Aspergers. In examining the story, it isn’t clear at first what the purpose is to the story of her having Aspergers. It isn’t a story about Aspergers. It does contrast well with the “normal guy” of her partner, detective Ruiz, who fits a different cliché of a cop. That may enhance the story as it makes her behavior and his more noticeable (by contrast), but there has not yet been revealed how her having these particular characteristics, with difficulty in social engagement, makes the serial killer stories more powerful. It may raise some obstacles against her pursuing the killer(s) as efficiently as possible, but that more extends the story rather than enhancing it.

Robert Mckee talks about this a bit in his book Story, when he describes the difference between characterization and character. Characterization are the demographics of an individual – their height, weight, job, clothing, background. That isn’t their character, and for the most part that isn’t what makes a story good. Whether it’s an accountant or a lawyer lying to the district attorney doesn’t matter as much as we might think. Character is revealed through the choices people make, with decisions under pressure revealing their deeper nature. Mental illness as a characterization doesn’t enhance a story. If it is left as that, as window dressing, then it’s a missed opportunity.

educational blocks

The second reason, that of educational, isn’t particularly useful in stories, either. I view it as the antithesis of spectacle. In fact, it’s usually boring. Royal Pains did some groundbreaking work from a health advocacy role by portraying a depressed person, and having that person receive ECT. It was shown realistically, with the usual anesthesia and care involved. Much of the episode centered around the stigma and one character fighting to keep the other from receiving ECT. When the ECT session was finally performed, all that was spoken was – “gee, you’re right, it really is a great thing.” It felt boring and didactic. While I appreciate the writers choosing not to further the cliché and inaccurate stereotype of ECT (e.g. Cuckoo’s Nest), it didn’t work as well as it could have as it wasn’t delivered in a way that enhanced the story. It became a story about stigma, which isn’t what the show is really about. Educational approaches require an investment from the viewer, and always risks losing them if it feels like just conveying information, similar to exposition in story. Exposition slows down a story. Education slows the story, and risks losing the audience. Even documentaries have a story structure to them to keep the audience invested.

Educational portrayals follow the rationale that “if we can increase awareness, that will solve the problem.” I disagree. Creating understanding and empathy is more important, and that comes not through the conveying of information, but through feeling a personal connection to another person, even if fictional. It is here that the true benefits of portraying mental health in media lies.

ideas

The third reason is as a relatable factor to human struggle and suffering. Mental illness is not a foreign entity. It is not like cancer, or something that “someone else” gets. Well, sometimes it is. In reality it’s usually a more extreme version of issues everyone struggles with. This is the avenue not only to make a character likable to the audience, but to make the path of that character relatable relevant to the path of the audience. Many people struggle with depression at some point in the life. Even more have lesser bouts of depression that they muddle through. Telling a story about someone with a worse depression could help the viewer, while also just being a compelling story. While psychotic disorders don’t seem relatable, more people than you’d imagine have an episode in their life where they feel like they’re “losing their mind.” These conditions are interesting because they are the extremes of human experience. The keyword is human. Understanding how to take what has been traditionally spectacle, and reveal the authentic human side of it that is relevant to everyone not only makes for good story, but indirectly helps with the stigma. Just as Orange is the New Black didn’t take the approach of a political campaign saying “women are marginalized in media.” Instead they told good stories about women, that made them empathetic and broke the mold on prior clichés.

So I encourage my fellow writers (as I remind myself) to think beyond cliché, spectacle, and even educating when it comes to portraying mental illness in story. Let mental illness be a window into humans, and let that enhance the story as a whole. Otherwise, the portrayal isn’t serving anyone.

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