The “Positive” Psychology of The Martian – Best Picture Nominee

The Martian focuses on the positive psychology that makes us great instead of dwelling on the darker dimensions of human survival.

Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” has been a critical and commercial success. It debuted at the top of the Box Office, grossing $54 million in its first weekend. It repeated as box office champ in its second weekend and has a global box office earnings of $331 million.

I thought the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel did a fine job of providing a refreshing perspective on positive psychology and resiliency. The Positive Psychology Center defines its movement as “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”

The Martian - Mark Watney growing crops on Mars

Because of its commercial success, many of my clients have seen The Martian and have been eager to discuss it with me. I’ve already cited the film in group therapy and continue to use it to illustrate many traits and skills for life enhancement. Here are some of the psychological illustrations from the film that I’ve discussed with clients:

[Positive Psychology … WARNING – The following list contains major spoilers]

  1. Humor – I think Watney views himself as a funny person, so naturally, he uses humor as a coping strategy. Robert Brooks, a professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and a bigwig in the field of resiliency, has spoken about how humor enhances people’s problem solving skills.
  1. Acceptance – A lot of my clients struggle moving beyond the “why me?” phase. They tend to get wrapped up on trying to change things they have no ability to change. Watney quickly accepts what has happened and what he needs to do. He stays focused on what he has control over and can influence.
  1. Adaptability – People that are highly rigid often have difficulty in life, especially since so much about life is outside of their control or unknown. Watney encounters several setbacks but simply adjusts the plans and moves forward. His flexibility greatly contributes to his survival and success.
  1. Problem-Solving – Watney focuses on what he can control or influence, rather than getting hung up on the “why me?” or trying to change what he cannot problem-solve.
  1. Leap of Faith – Not so much in a spiritual sense (although it can be applied in that domain), it’s the idea that someone can function and move forward in life without knowing all the answers and tolerating the unknown. Watney doesn’t know if NASA is aware he’s alive, when he’ll be rescued, or if his rescue will be successful. Regardless of this, he continues to press on.
  1. Self-Control – The ability to delay gratification is a huge psychological strength and Watney’s food rationing highlights his degree of self-discipline.
  1. Purpose or Meaning – Watney’s purpose (or mission) is to get back home. Having a sense of purpose, meaning, or mission in life helps folks stay on course.
  1. Staying Active – Keeping focused and staying active is important for avoiding depression. This doesn’t get a lot of specific attention, but this is one of the biggest takeaways of the film – Mark battles his depression and likely psychological distress by keeping busy, logging his video entries, and breaking down each problem.
  1. Journaling (or video blogging) – Although it can feel like the video logs are a cinematic device to provide exposition to the audience, journaling also helps people externalize their struggles. Whether by writing or speaking, externalizing struggles can helpbring about clarity and meaning, and again, helps people avoid shutting down and going into a depressive and psychological downward spiral.
  1. Positive Stress – Resilience has been linked to a positive degree of exposure to stress during early developmental years. If your nervous system is able to master stress management, then in the future your neurobiological stress response will tend to be more adaptive, according to Steven Southwick, professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and author of the book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges.
  1. Hope and Optimism – Those who have a positive view of themselves and their options tend to show greater resilience, create their own hope, and develop a cycle of hope, optimism, and success.
  1. Music – Sound stimulates and communicates emotion. Although it wasn’t his favorite, Watney periodically listened to disco music that he had access to, and it generated positive emotions and a playful mood.
  1. Expressing Honest Emotions – Mark Watney is fully aware that his odds for survival are slim. Despite not dwelling or ruminating on his negative emotions, he is able to express them. Watney’s ongoing emotional honesty may be one of his saving graces. He is able to process them through his logs while being able to focus on the task at hand.
  1. Executes What He Knows – Many of the folks I work with in therapy struggle with translating what they know in their head into action in their life. They tend to get easily frustrated with themselves, struggle with self-confidence, and give up. One of Watney’s strengths is his ability to put into action his wealth of knowledge. He is able to survive not just because of what he knows but also because of the actions he takes and decisions he makes.
  1. Knowing What Makes Life Worth Living – Mark’s message to his parents toward the end of the film highlights that he has no regrets for his life. Despite the bleak circumstances he’s in, Watney has lived a satisfying, purposeful, and meaningful life.

My Review of The Martian

(#10 out of 15) In honor of 2015, I’m doing a series that covers various topics, ranging from psychology to pop culture. Each post is formatted into a top 15 list and appears on the 15th of each month (or as close to as possible).  Be sure to check out previous 15 for ’15 submissions, including:

Best High School Films This Century

Mad Men Highs and Lows

Adele and the Mental Health Mixed Tape

What Boyhood Gets Right, and in Doing So, Becomes a Film About Our Lives

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