The King's Speech from a Positive Psychology Perspective

Positive psychology insufficiently studies doing the right thing.

Posted Mar 01, 2011

Lionel Logue: Surely a prince's brain knows what its mouth is doing?
King George VI: You're not well acquainted with princes, are you?
- From The King's Speech

King George VI of England

I rarely go to movies, although I watch a lot of them on cable television. However, the other day I actually went to a theater to see The King's Speech. Perhaps all of the Oscar acclaim caught my attention. Anyway, it was a wonderful movie -- story, dialogue, and acting -- but we all knew that already. My only quibble -- not about the movie but about the Oscar nominations -- was why Colin Firth (the king) was considered the leading actor and Geoffrey Rush (the speech therapist) was considered the supporting actor. Maybe the lead actor is the better looking one, or maybe I'm just biased as a teacher and therapist.

But that's a quibble, and my point here is to draw out some of the positive psychology implications of the story told in the movie. I will focus on the king. The speech therapist (Lionel Logue) deserves his own essay at a later point in time.

So, other people matter. The speech therapist mattered to the king, and less obviously but just as profoundly the king mattered to the speech therapist. The king's wife mattered to everyone, because she set up and nurtured the "therapy" that eventually changed history.

Practice, practice, practice. The king was able to speak fluently only because he worked incessantly at it.

Humor helps therapy, learning, or any instance of deliberate change. The speech therapist insisted on calling the king Bertie, and the repartee between the two of them throughout the entire movie was wonderful.

Everyone is a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. The person who leads the good life is one who lets the strengths rule and not the weaknesses. The king had a stammer, and he was reluctant to ascend the throne. But he rose to the occasion and did the right thing because he was brave and dedicated.

I had not thought about it for a long time, but as a child, I was terribly pigeon-toed and I wore "corrective shoes" for many years -- clunky, clumsy, and of course humiliating. That was then. This is now. And I had forgotten about those damn shoes until I saw the movie. Oh-blah-di.

Doing the right thing is not always easy, and it is not always fun. The king only smiled at the very end of the movie, after his successful radio speech. And then World War II began. But the right thing remains the right thing, and it is ironic that positive psychology insufficiently studies doing the right thing, instead emphasizing what makes people happy or long-lived. (By the way, King George VI died in 1952, at age 57.)

The king's brother Edward was king for a short period of time, but he gave up the throne to marry the American divorcee and socialite Wallis Simpson. Admitting my ignorance of history, I only knew about that event as a simple love story about a king who abdicated to marry. Well, sure, but the way the movie depicted it, things were a lot more complicated, or at least different. Lovestruck he may have been, but Edward also seemed a coward.

So what's the take-home message? Neither you nor I are players on the world stage, but we can all be kings or queens more locally ... if we do the right thing ... if we have help from others that we actually accept ... if we rely on what we do well and not let what we do poorly prevail. None of us knows what life will hold. The king was of course born into royalty, but he was only fourth in line for succession to king. But events ensued, plus lots of enabling conditions, and he became king and a good one at that. A lesson for all of us, I am sure.