Charles Dickens, author of the holiday classic “A Christmas Carol,” gets high marks from researchers who say his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge’s switch from miser to saintliness parallels real life-changing experiences.
For their study, former graduate student Jon Skalski and Brigham Young University psychology professor Dr. Sam Hardy conducted an in-depth study of 14 people who experienced profound, sudden and lasting change.
They say the fictional Scrooge would fit right in.
“Like our participants, Scrooge was suffering,” Skalski said. “There was a world that was ripe for change because of suffering going on.”
Though Scrooge had money, he was poor in relationships. Orphaned as a child and broken-hearted from a failed engagement, Scrooge’s pains intensify each Christmas Eve, the anniversary of the death of his only friend, Jacob Marley.
In Dickens’ classic story, Marley appears seven years after his death as a voice of warning to Scrooge to change his ways.
Though a ghost, the role he plays is true to life, according to the researchers, who noted that most of their study participants described the presence of a trusted other person during their experience.
“Just by their presence, a trusted friend can open up possibilities and a sense of faith in what’s possible that one can’t see,” Skalski said.
To find study subjects, the researchers placed ads on Craigslist in Illinois and Utah.
The researchers note that the experiences shared by the participants were not recent. On average, nine years had passed between the transformation and their interviews. However, most of them could remember the exact time of day when the turning point occurred, Skalski said.
“I’ve often thought about this, whether these transformations are really sudden or gradual,” he said. “It’s like water boiling — you can look at that as a discontinuous change from not boiling to boiling, but there are certain elements going on beneath the surface that allow for the dramatic change to take place.”
For an entrepreneur referred to as Kevin in the study, the preceding turmoil arose because his identity as a successful businessman crashed along with his failed ventures. Like Scrooge, he had neglected relationships and said his psyche was “in a very dark place.” But with his breakthrough moment, life instantly took on a whole new meaning for Kevin.
“I say it’s the best thing that could’ve happened, because my life is so much more rewarding than it once was. You can’t put a price tag on certain…events that I maybe missed before — certain events, and a marriage, and a family, birthdays, you know?
“Certain things that are just really fun to be a part of are more meaningful, and it is happiness — the kind that lasts. I know these truths have been around forever. But for me they’re new.”
Another participant’s world crumbled because she based her worth on how well she did in school. Like Scrooge and Kevin, she emerged with a focus on other people, the researchers noted.
“Now I measure success by how much time I spend serving and doing those things, because those — serving and being with people — are really what bring me satisfaction now.”
Each of the study participants experienced overwhelming stress prior to their breakthroughs, the researchers pointed out. This led Hardy, an expert in human development, to wonder whether hitting rock bottom is a necessary ingredient for such positive transformations.
“That led me to think, well, is there a way that people can capitalize on these mechanisms of change and initiate them themselves instead of bottoming out,” Hardy said. “Can you self-initiate this kind of change?”
Skalski and Hardy’s research will appear in the January issue of The Humanistic Psychologist.
Source: Brigham Young University