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Thriving Through Depression: Beethoven

Case Study A.  This is a lawyer 31 years old who works for a prestigious law firm in a North Carolina city.  He is married, has two children, and makes over a $100,000 a year.  He works 60 hours a week and tries to bill at least 2000 hours a year.  He finds himself waking up early in the morning thinking about things he has to do at the office and unable to go back to sleep.  By the time the weekend rolls around, he is just too tired to engage in much family activity.  He is aware that his kids are growing up rapidly and has a feeling of hopelessness about being able to be an active father in their lives. 

Mary Howerton, the former Director of the Mecklenburg County Bar, recently obtained her Ph.d. in psychology and completed a doctoral dissertation in which she studied, among other things, the relationship between stress, depression, work addiction, and attributional style among lawyers in North Carolina.  Her findings were that 27% of the lawyers she surveyed were at risk for depression, 53% had pessimistic attributional styles, nearly 26% were work addicted, and 51% had elevated levels of perceived stress.  The lawyer described in Case Study A above may be headed in the direction of one of Mary’s statistics.*

Case Study B.  A little over 200 years ago, in 1801, this individual was 31 years old and had become suicidal.  He was living in poverty, losing his hearing, and wallowing in the depths of despair and hopelessness.  Twenty-three years later, utterly deaf, no longer suicidal, and infinitely creative, Ludwig Van Beethoven composed the life affirming lyrical cords of his Ninth Symphony.

There is a story going around involving a particular government program working with children.  Ten years ago, it advertised for positions saying it included a course on how to avoid stress; five years ago, it advertised employment with a course in managing stress; and today, it is advertising for employees with a course on dealing with burn-out.  Our culture’s perspective on stress is changing.  In this article, I would like to take a leap beyond just dealing with stress, or in this case, a leap back in history, to look at Beethoven’s life and focus on what allows individuals to thrive regardless of the stressful conditions in which they find themselves.

What are the factors that allowed Beethoven’s life to turn around that might be helpful clues to the lawyer in Case Study A and prevent him from becoming one of the statistics that Mary Howerton’s survey has found?  Beethoven did not suddenly become a miraculous thriving individual.  His was not a sudden transformation from helpless despair to a person living full of creative energy and joy.  Even though for years mostly what he heard was a buzzing and humming sound, until in his last and most productive years when he was totally deaf, Beethoven managed to persevere in such a way that he perceived his world with joy and gratefulness.  Beethoven was not what we would call today a paragon of good mental health.  He never had the courage to tell others of his deafness.  He remained an ordinary man with ordinary vulnerabilities and vanities.  He often tried to deny his hearing problem and visited a number of quacks who claimed they could cure deafness, but despite this, somehow Beethoven had a strong emotional immune system which allowed him to thrive despite his adversities.

Psychologists have taken a look at Beethoven’s life and tried to figure out what are the characteristics that allow people like him, whom they call thrivers, to persevere, endure, and ultimately be happy, despite physical ailments or other adversities.  They have found several characteristics:

(1) The let-go rule.  Thrivers seem to know, or have somehow learned, to let their emotions flow naturally rather than cling to them.  They realize that it’s not being afraid, resentful, depressed, or anxious that destroys life, but it is allowing oneself to become stuck in these emotional states.  Despite all of his adversities and his emotional reactions to them, Beethoven did not stay stuck in his negative emotional states. Emotional flow usually comes from some natural way to be aware of and get rid of negative feelings, while at the same time, not dwelling on the feeling.  The goal is to experience life deeply, but not to be overly attached to the feelings that come with the experience.

(2) Have faith, calm down and don’t despair.  Thrivers seem to understand that no emotion lasts forever.  In fact, no emotion whether happiness or sadness ever lasts that long.  Thrivers seem to have an intuitive sense that their job is to experience their life, not to get stuck either in their negative states, or to obsessively try to cling to their positive ones. Again, the idea is to live focused on the experience itself, not on the emotional state related to the experience.

(3)   Suffer wisely and cheer up rule.  This is somewhat like the have faith rule, in that thrivers seem to understand that we are all going to have time to experience the full range of human emotions and that these are essential to living a truly authentic life.  Thrivers seem to realize that somehow suffering does bring about some intangible ability to be stronger in ways that are positive.  Beethoven wrote, “I can defy this fate even though there will be times when I shall be the unhappiest of God’s creatures.”  A Beethoven symphony certainly reflects the full range of human emotions and in this way, it is a reflection of his lifelong effort to creatively rise above his suffering.

Of course, our psychological immune system is not separate from our physiological immune system.  Studies on stress show that it is the physiological response to stress getting stuck in the “on” position that can be most harmful.  Thrivers have adapted ways in which their psychological immune systems work in parallel with their physiological immune system to allow greater likelihood of thriving.

(1) Psychological immunization.  By going through difficult life experiences a person can, to some extent, get an emotional vaccination that helps them through other life difficulties.  Emotional trauma can make one stronger at the same time that emotional trauma can be devastating.  Dr. Kevin McCauley, who spoke at last year’s PALS training session, believes the body’s response to trauma and stress is the cause of addictive disease.  The key seems to be to deal with the trauma in a straightforward and forthright manner.  Beethoven did this in struggling with his hearing disability.  He tried to find a cure, but he didn’t try to avoid his condition by taking pills or using alcohol or engaging in some destructive obsessive behavior.  More often than not, the responses, which are undertaken to avoid the pain of the trauma, are what actually create the greater long-term damage.   Ultimately, going through the storm seems to be what builds emotional resilience.  Devising ways to avoid feeling one’s feelings and confronting one’s difficulties is the more serious problem. Keys to building one’s psychological immunity are a good support system and a meaningful and flexible belief system.

(2)  Lowered expectations.  This has been a surprising finding by those who have studied people who seem to thrive well.  These people don’t develop emotional toughness or ways to rebound faster from a crisis, but they develop ways to thrive by lowering expectations of both themselves and life.  In other words, thriving and feelings of invincibility are opposed.  Thrivers do not have to be on a high of one success after another to feel good about life.  Thrivers tend to have lower thresholds for what gives them joy and happiness in life, and in the process, are able to forgive themselves for their shortcomings, and to not take personally the random harshness that they may encounter in the world.  In recovery terms, this is referred to as accepting life on life terms.  It means maturing sufficiently to give up the feeling of entitlement that all children have.  This is often difficult.  We live in a modern world that encourages high expectations and our lawyer in Case Study A was probably a person who excelled throughout his life as a student, and developed a high internal expectation of himself, and was the subject of high external expectations by family members and others.  In a culture that often encourages us to say yes more and to do more, thrivers seem to be able to have less, do less and say no when their thriving depends on it.  The bottom line is we do not thrive because we finally accomplished the impossible or overcame tremendous obstacles.  We thrive because we remain engaged with our life and our problems long enough to find meaning in them.  We thrive because we look for and find wonder in the common everyday aspects of our life.

One of the most characteristic aspects of thrivers is their ability to mentally re-adjust their life theory to life’s reality.  Beethoven had to deal with the harsh reality of his deafness.  Somehow, he had to come to terms with that in a way that allowed him to still be creative and in his case, achieve creative genius. The key to this is the conscious act of accommodating one’s view of one’s life to reality.  Thrivers seem to know when to create a consciousness of lowered expectations if they must, and higher hopes when they realistically can.  Somehow when a crisis comes along, thrivers seem to know that their view of themselves and the world may be inadequate to address their current crisis.  They are able to adjust to find a new consciousness of expectations that allows them to go forward.  Thrivers like Beethoven know how to re-vision how they see their lives even when forces outside their control keep tearing it down.  By constantly re-creating their own view of themselves and the world, they’re able, as Beethoven was, to be creative in the world.  Ultimately their greatest creativity is their awareness of and ability to change their own consciousness.

Amiram Elwork in his book, Stress Management For Lawyers, offers three characteristics that may differentiate lawyers who handle stress from those whose succumb to it.  (1)  Commitment.  Committed lawyers think what they do on a daily basis is meaningful and relevant.  Their inner sense of purpose makes them more immune to external disappointments.  (2) Competency.  Lawyers who believe they are competent perceive life stresses as predictable consequences of logical events that they can influence.  (3) Goodwill.  Lawyers who have a generally positive outlook can treat others with friendliness, kindness, and respect.

Elwork’s characteristics seem to be markers for good mental health in basically good times.  But, life’s stressors are not always predictable and, as Mary Howerton’s survey showed, the attributional style of most lawyers is not a positive one, but rather pessimistic. When external circumstances that are not predictable change, those who are able to thrive tend to be those who have the characteristics of a Beethoven.  They are the individuals who are able to re-adjust their expectations and re-adjust their attitude so that they can thrive in the difficult reality that they find themselves in.  Underlying the attitude of the thriver is an attitude of humility and gratitude for what one has, despite the difficulties reality may offer; and a willingness and desire to act on this awareness in a creative way in the world.

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