Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

"Awake" as a Positive Psychology Experience

Reviewing the shocking season finale and its use of positive psychology.

I figured I’d follow up my previous blog post—Diagnosing Awake—with some thoughts on the season finale. For those of you unfamiliar with the show or my previous post, Awake, according to IMDB, is about how “a car accident takes the life of a family member, and Detective Michael Britten now lives two alternating parallel lives, one with his wife and one with his son. Is one of his "realities" merely a dream?”

Well, the season finale finally aired a few weeks ago *** big-time spoiler alert *** and the twisty ending revealed...it was all a dream!

Indeed, we discover that Detective Michael Britten’s suffering—the split-world reality, the car accident and death of his wife and/or son, the conspiracy involving heroin and police captains—was all the product of a vivid dream world. He’d been dreaming the whole time. Everything that had happened throughout the whole season, up until the final minute of the show's final episode, had been a dream! And when you think about it, this was really the only ending that would’ve ever made any sense.

You see, there was something about Britten that troubled me throughout my viewing of Awake. It continued to nag at me like a thorn in my mind as I engaged in the speculative pathologizing of Britten in my previous blog post (when I went through the relevant DSM-V disorders that he may have suffered).

The thorn was this: Britten was clearly a healthy individual. Sure, it’s possible that the trauma of a car accident and subsequent loss of a loved one could make even the most psychological healthy of individuals’ unhealthy, at least temporarily. And, yes, there were a few scenes in the show’s final episodes where Britten really did appear to be "crazy." I don’t mean that Britten was being perceived by others as being crazy (that happened throughout the season), I mean that in the objective opinion of this one neutral third-party viewer, Britten seemed genuinely nuts. His thoughts were disorganized, his demeanor was frantic, his judgment went out the window (who runs after a man in the middle of the street and into oncoming traffic—get a grip, Britten!), and then there was the undeniable kicker, the conclusive proof of his insanity—his self-admitted and very entertaining hallucinations. So, yes, Britten kind of worried me as the show entered into the homestretch…but despite these few qualifiers I can safely say that Britten never really seemed to exhibit mental instability or pathology.

In fact, I would argue that Britten was the embodiment of sound, sophisticated psychological functioning (as indicated by his activity in the dream at least). Think about it. Here was a man with myriad strengths, ranging from the piercing cognitive intellect that drove his exceptional "detective" skill set to the full spectrum of psychological tools. He had the social intelligence to overcome his son’s mourning-induced rebelliousness and create a more intimate relationship. He had the coping skills to compartmentalize his split-world reality and perform with expertise and engagement at work. He exhibited impressive self-awareness in his ability to genuinely engage in the confrontational psychotherapy sessions. This guy had created what researchers had called “the good life”—filled with pleasure, engagement and meaning. He had a successful career filled with admiring colleagues, he had a beloved, cohesive family, he had a rich and ever-clarifying internal life, and he proceeded to respond to the adversity and stress of the split-world stuff with a cool, calm composure! In fact, to really drive home the notion of Britten as a grand and admirable figure, psychologically speaking, I would argue that he exhibited every single character strength in the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. Meaning, he exhibited creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective, bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest, love, kindness, social intelligence, teamwork, fairness, leadership, forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation, appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor and spirituality—either in his personal, professional or internal life.

I’ve climbed on my soapbox about Britten’s gleamingly pure character to make the following point: Awake is not about a detective who becomes crazy or battles craziness; it’s about a perfectly healthy individual who is dropped into a world of crazy. In this dream world Britten endures a traumatic car accident and the tragic loss of loved ones, he endures the gradual uncovering of a vast, betrayal-riddled conspiracy, he endures the disorientation of a split-world reality, and he endures well-intentioned "experts" telling him he’s crazy. And I might add that he endures all this rather gracefully and skillfully.

Thus, I hereby officially declare Awake to be a “Positive Psychology” television show. Watch it and you may learn about positive psychology ideas/concepts inherent in the show’s plot (i.e. making meaning out of tragedy), you may learn about character strengths modeled by the protagonist, Detective Michael Britten (i.e. his zest for life), and you may enjoy a viewing experience that induces positive emotions (i.e.inspiration and interest). This hypothesis is consistent with Niemiec and Wedding's (2008) critiera for a positive psychology movie as including a balanced portrait of (and depiction of how to build and maintain) a character strength, depiction of adversity, and positive tone or mood.

And the final twist during the show's climax offers as pure a positive psychology ending as one may view on the big-screen. Britten “awakens” from the dream experience but it’s really more transformational than that. He has experienced an “awakening.” He not only feels the exquisite relief at realizing that nothing bad has actually happened to him and his family, but you sense that he's become endowed with a newfound, sustainable sense of appreciation for the life he's always had. He seems intent on fully entering into and cherishing the present moment of his life.

Recall the last time you, for instance, came down with the flu. Remember how, when you were in the thick of it, you so yearned for the heavenly sensation of being your normal, healthy self? The flu would eventually exit your system and you'd be blissfully aware of your return to baseline...all of which would last about a day before the natural human condition would seem to transport you back into a state of taking your health for granted?! Awake is about a man who has an experience that seems to allow him to resist the natural, gravitational pull back into taking life’s beauty for granted. Understanding and learning how to resist this pull so as to remain in a life that is increasingly rich, meaningful and fulfilling is, to me, the essence of the positive psychology moment.

Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Cambridge, MA, US: Hogrefe Publishing.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

more...

Subscribe to Reel Therapy

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?