The Beethoven Factor

The People Who Thrive in the Face of Extreme Adversity May Surprise You

Magazine Issue
January/February 2004
The Beethoven Factor

In 1801, at age 31, Ludwig van Beethoven had become suicidal. He lived in poverty, was losing his hearing, and wallowed in the depths of withdrawn despair and hopelessness. Twenty-three years later, utterly deaf, no longer suicidal, and, instead, energetically creative, he immortalized Schiller’s life-affirming “Ode to Joy” in the lyrical chords of his Ninth Symphony. His transposing of Schiller’s inspiring words, “Be embraced all ye millions with a kiss for all the world,” reflected his remarkable ability to triumph over the tragedy of his hearing loss. He had triumphed over his tragedy to be able to construe the world in ways that can forever help all of us feel the joy he experienced by hearing his miraculous music.

Beethoven can be seen as one of the superstars of thriving. He did not suddenly transform himself from someone living in helpless despair to a person living in constant joy and elation. Like all ordinary thrivers, he continued to suffer through many terrible times and remained prone to dark moods throughout most of his life. In an 1801 letter to his friend Karl Ameda, he wrote, “[Y]our Beethoven is having a miserable life, at odds with nature and its Creator, abusing the latter for leaving his creatures vulnerable to the slightest accident. . . . My greatest faculty, my hearing, is greatly deteriorated.”

For years, Beethoven heard mostly humming and buzzing until, for the last and very productive years of his life, he became totally deaf. Through it all, however, his ability to creatively construe his situation allowed him to develop an increasingly more encompassing and adaptive explanatory style.

In another letter Beethoven wrote to a friend five months after the letter to Ameda, he said, “You must think of me as being as happy as it is possible to be on this earth–not unhappy. No! I cannot endure it. I will seize Fate by the throat. It will not wholly conquer me. Oh, how beautiful it is to live–and live a thousand times over!” His words capture the essence of how a deaf man learned to listen by continuing to lead a life as magnificently enriched as it was difficult.

A Thriving Life
I refer to thriving as the “Beethoven Factor” not only because of the gifted composer’s magnificent victory over adversity but because his invincibility also reflects the life-span view of thriving. When I speak of thriving as rising to the occasion, life itself is the occasion to which I refer.

Beethoven himself was far from being an enlightened guru, and though he thrived through his problems, he remained an ordinary man with ordinary vulnerabilities and liabilities. He never summoned the courage to tell others of his deafness, writing in one of his letters that he was “unable to say to people, ‘Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.'” He often tried to deny his problem and deluded himself by visits to all sorts of charlatans and quacks who claimed they could cure his deafness. As ineffective as these visits were, they also may have offered Beethoven brief spurts of hope and even moments of healthy self-delusion that bought him time to keep composing.

Quantum leaps of thriving sometimes happen. However, most thrivers rarely recognize their invincibility in a short period of magnificent epiphany. Like Beethoven, they have periods of dismal lows and unrealistic highs. Through it all, thrivers maintain the key characteristic of thriving.

My interviews with thrivers indicate that they tend to have very strong immune systems. Even at the worst of times, they seem aware on some level of the rules by which it functions.

The “Let It Go” Rule: Thrivers seem to know or have learned to let their emotions flow naturally rather than cling to them. They know that it’s not being afraid, depressed, or anxious that destroys their lives; it’s allowing themselves to get stuck in these emotional states. Beethoven’s statement that he would not “endure” his pain but that he would not allow it to “wholly conquer” and dominate his life reflects his unconscious awareness of this rule.

The “Have Faith, Calm Down, and Don’t Despair” Rule: Thrivers have faith that no feeling will last forever and that there is always an equally strong opposing emotion for every emotion we experience. Like most thrivers, Beethoven seemed to adopt an increasingly more inclusive and adaptive view of what constituted happiness. Even as he struggled with his loss of what for him was his most important sense, he still wrote that he was “as happy as it is possible to be on this earth.”

The “Suffer Wisely and Cheer Up” Rule: Thrivers sense that suffering is essential for a truly authentic life. They seem to know that even when things seem at their worst, they are much stronger than they think and will be stronger on some level because of their pain. Beethoven’s statement, “I can defy this fate even though there will be times when I shall be the unhappiest of God’s creatures,” exemplifies his grasp of how the innate psychoimmunity operates and that he seemed to understand the dynamic nature of emotions.

The next time you hear music composed by Beethoven, I suggest you do what my grandmother recommended and listen to how it reflects the ebb and flow of his emotions and his evolving joyful view of life and nature. Listen for how the changes in volume and complex intonations and movements seem to be an ode to thriving, a reflection of his lifelong effort to become creative through his suffering. Listen for how music created by a deaf man might help you strengthen your own psychoimmunity.

Four Psychological Immunity Reactions
Our psychological immune system is not separate from our physiological immune system. They work together as one protective and life-enhancing unit. They operate as a complex interactive loop between the brain, body, and mind. Here are four of the ways in which our psychological immune system works in parallel function with our physiological immunity to allow us to experience the Beethoven Factor.

Psychological Immunization: By going through several life traumas, a person can become to some extent emotionally less sensitive to further trauma. As Beethoven did, people who have gone through terrible stress can develop a psychological immune system characterized by a much less intense reaction to future stressors than people who have not been “inoculated” against emotional “antigens.”

Beethoven went through several psychological traumas and various manifestations of his hearing loss. He repeatedly encountered the stress of dealing with various phases of going deaf and trying to disguise his diminishing hearing. What many saw as his natural reserve or creative preoccupation and absentmindedness were often ways he kept trying to deal with the trauma that had struck him at his prime. Because of his constant struggle of trying to deal with his problem, his psychoimmunity seemed to become stronger.

Psychoimmunological Rapid Rebound: When we encounter severe trauma and manage to thrive by making our own meaning out of what happened to us, not only are we immunized against the next adversity, we also become better able to recover more quickly from it.

Beethoven had a history of being emotionally knocked down hard and often. He was often offered false hope of curing his deafness by those he would later call “cheaters and quacks.” It seems he became a little more adept each time at picking himself up and returning to his creative work, despite what must have been repeated heartbreaking disappointment.

Psychoimmunological Hardiness: The third psychoimmune response relates to rising to an even higher level of psychoimmunity following an adverse event. In the aftermath of becoming totally deaf, Beethoven faced other crises in his life and work. He questioned his faith and the meaning of his life, writing that he increasingly felt “at odds with nature and its Creator” and “abused by the latter” for making him suffer so. From these depths of doubt and despair, Beethoven rose to even higher levels of thriving. After totally losing his hearing, he expressed himself with the enhanced emotional strength of those who have had their psychoimmunity boosted by severe hardship. His words stating that he was “as happy as it is possible to be on this earth” reflect that strength.

Lowered Expectations: Perhaps one of the most surprising findings from my interviews of thrivers was not that they seemed to develop stronger psychological immune systems that reacted less intensely to stress over time, that they recovered faster after a crisis, or that they somehow became even more psychoimmune and stronger due to their suffering. It was that part of their creative construing was their development of lowered expectations of both themselves and of life.

I had thought that thriving and a feeling of invincibility would be accompanied by raised expectations, and that was certainly often the case. However, most thrivers’ psychological trajectory wavered, often dipping up and down even as its overall course was upward. They not only could find more to enjoy about life, but were much happier with much less. They lowered the threshold for being thrilled and forgave themselves for their shortcomings and the world for its random harshness. As one thriver joked, “It’s a lot easier to feel great when you don’t go around expecting life to be fantastic. The old joke is pretty true. Keep your expectations low and you won’t be disappointed. Semi-great is good enough for me now.”

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget referred to the process of making adaptive changes in our thinking to deal with life events as “accommodation.” Accommodation not only takes the form of mental upshifting and increased expectations, it can also involve mental downshifting when necessary to a less demanding view of the world and ourselves. It incorporates external circumstances and makes changes in our consciousness not only to fit them in but also to modify and strengthen the adaptability of our thinking.

Although we live in a modern world that encourages ever higher expectations, thrivers have a highly flexible accommodative style. Their explanatory systems allow them to not only increase but also sometimes significantly lower their expectations. Creativity and high-level adaptability can come from this kind of downshifting of goals just as it does from rededicated upshifting.

In a culture that keeps encouraging us to get more, do more, and say yes, thrivers seem to be able to “have less, do less, and say no” when their thriving depends on it. One thriver I interviewed was a 16-year-old boy who football coaches felt was destined to be a star. The night before he was to sign his letter accepting a full football scholarship to a Big Ten School, he was paralyzed for life by a drunk driver. He told me, “All the other guys in rehab are talking about their commitment to walking again. Not me. I’m learning how to accept the fact that I won’t and figuring out ways I can have a great or maybe even a better life because I’m in a chair.” It seemed clear that this courageous young man had lowered his aspirations but realistically raised his inspiration.

Beyond Pollyanna
Thrivers are not Pollyannas. They are not blindly optimistic and are far from showing the often irritating feigned cheerfulness that can result from trying to comply with popular psychology’s version of positive thinking. Their invincibility derives not just from their discovery of what they are able to do about their problems, but also from their acceptance of what they may never be able to do.

Any joy that thrivers gain through their suffering derives not from newfound super-strength, but from establishing a better and more comfortable mental match between the possible and the impossible. One of the thrivers I interviewed paraphrased a well-known positive thinking phrase, “The possible we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

After failing for years to regain her ability to walk after being struck by a car, this thriver said, “We have to learn what’s possible, but impossible we have to learn to ignore. Like the other patients, I tried to be Ms. Positive Thinking at first. People sort of expect you to put on your game face and tell them that you will walk again, but I knew I wouldn’t. People with my kind of injury just don’t. I didn’t want to waste my life like all the heroes around me by going after an impossible goal. I wanted to live my life now, not be on a mission that I knew would not succeed no matter how many people applauded me. I wanted to get back a normal life by figuring out as quickly as possible what was and was not possible for me in my case. As soon as I finally figured out what was going to be possible and how much I was willing to give to get to that point, I started to deal with my crisis in my own way.”

We do not thrive because we finally accomplish the impossible or overcome tremendous obstacles. We thrive because we mentally remain engaged with our problem long enough to find meaning that helps us accommodate to whatever happens to us. We do not make miracles just by rising to new heights. We live a wonderful life by searching for the miraculous in whatever life has made for us. The young woman in the wheelchair said, “I hate it, but the whole thing about not feeling anything below my chest is sort of really a kind of ugly mystery to me. Somehow, I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to fit this into my life and not let it run my life.”

A Consciousness Catalyst
For thrivers, traumas in their lives seem to provide a mentally motivating mismatch between their currently operative life theory and life’s reality. This causes what psychologist Jean Piaget called “disequilibration,” or a dissonance between what our life theory predicts should happen and what actually does. For thrivers, this dissonance is a consciousness catalyst that causes them to rethink their current theories and beliefs about the world and their place in it. The conscious acts of creation that constitute thriving require an accommodating mind, one that is constantly changing and made wiser by the events that challenge it.

Thrivers seem to know when their current explanatory style is too limited to handle their current crisis. They adjust it to create a consciousness of lowered expectations if they must and higher hopes when they realistically can. A consciousness of adjustable levels of expectations can be one of the most important parts of thriving.

Don’t expect a personality transplant due to your thriving. If you are a generally joyful, happy person, you’ll be much the same way no matter what crisis you face. If you’re a perpetual grump and general annoyance to those you live with, you will probably still be that way after you thrive through your problems. The Beethoven Factor does not refer to a total personal makeover, only to the capacity to think things over and come out stronger and more adaptable from the process.

A Lesson from China
To summarize the elements of the lifelong thriving orientation of the Beethoven Factor, I offer the wisdom of another thriving superstar. He was born in and spent most of his life in China. He had lived most of his life in poverty and oppression. He had been imprisoned in China for his democratic views and protest in Tiananmen Square. He had witnessed most of his friends being massacred or disappearing forever. He had somehow managed to talk his way out of prison and come to America to learn English in weeks, earn two academic degrees within a few short years, and become a highly successful businessman.

He had come to me for help in dealing with the loss of his wife to breast cancer, and, within days of that loss, his own diagnosis of cancer. Reading his application for treatment, I expected to see someone who looked and acted as if he had been through the psychological mill, but he appeared upbeat, jovial, and energetic. Even when he cried, he still conveyed a strength of spirit that caused wonder and awe in the medical staff.

One night after a particularly difficult and painful chemotherapy treatment, I sat with him in his hospital room. The Chinese man had tubes in his arms and his hair was gone. I held a plastic bowl near his mouth as he repeatedly gagged and vomited. Even in this awkward situation, he said in his typical joking style, “I’m sorry to put you through this with me, but I know you’ve been through this yourself. As you can know, what doesn’t kill you . . . only hurts like hell.” He spoke of his love for his wife and how he felt she was with him now more than ever and that she was somehow looking after him. He said his pain seemed to bring him closer to her because he was feeling what she must have felt with her cancer.

In his weakened voice, he said, “You know, the Chinese character for crisis is made up of a combination of the one for danger and the one for opportunity. I am in more danger now, but like all the other dangerous times, it seems to be yet another opportunity in my life. My wife’s death stretched my spirit, but it did not tear it. It made me stronger to face this cancer. My own cancer has brought my wife closer to my soul. I might be with her in not too long, or again maybe she will have to wait a little longer. Who knows? I’m not getting rid of the false hope my doctors say I have, because for me hope is hope. You don’t have to worry about facing reality, because sooner or later it will find you. But you can make a little of your own reality. I feel weak but in a way I know this is what life is supposed to be for my wife and me. You called it the Beethoven Factor in your lecture and now I know why. He composed such beauty from the troubles in his life.”

After another bout of very severe nausea and pain, he took a deep breath and continued. “Don’t think I’m not scared to death. I hate this cancer, I’ve cried until I have no more tears, and I’m embarrassed to tell you that I have sworn in Chinese at the doctors and nurses. I do not consider myself a fighter and I’m often more than ready to give up, but I’m still here so I guess I’m not supposed to go yet. I’m spending my time writing long letters to my wife, and she answers them at night in my dreams. I think I hear her sometimes, maybe as Beethoven heard. I don’t think I could have listened this way without facing what I’m facing now.”

My patient showed all the characteristics of a thriver you have read about. His hardiness in the face of terrible pain, his humor in confronting the seemingly unending series of crises in his life, his patient hope despite his physicians’ time-based insistence that he must “face reality,” and his ability to construe or imagine ways of looking at his situation were always present when we met. And by the way, not only his healing but also his cure was complete. He recovered from his cancer, something one of his doctors called “unreal.”

This Chinese thriver continues as of this writing to be one of the most successful financial advisors in New York and often acts as an intermediary for American businesses trying to get a start in China. When I interviewed him again for this book, he said he would send me a quote someday that he felt summarized how he views, and he hopes others will view, the Beethoven Factor. By a coincidence of a magnitude that only a thriver will accept as true, it arrived as I was completing my writing of this chapter. It was a statement by Anwar Sadat that said, “He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality.”

Like Beethoven, thrivers know how to weave and keep reweaving the fabric of their lives even when forces keep tearing at it. By constantly recreating their own consciousness, they are able to do what Beethoven did. They remain the creative composers of their own consciousness. 


Excerpted from The Beethoven Factor: The New Positive Psychology of Hardiness, Happiness, Healing, and Hope by Paul Pearsall (Charlottesville, Virginia: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2003). Courtesy of Hampton Roads Publishing Company.




Paul Pearsall

Paul Pearsall, PhD, received numerous awards for his research on the relationship between the brain, heart, and immune system. He was the author 18 best-selling books including Awe: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion.