A Positive Spin on Life
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Leave it to Michael J. Fox to find the bright side of Parkinson's disease.
"I feel that whatever hardships or losses I've had as a result of the Parkinson's are far outweighed by the gifts I have been given in life," Fox said. "Everyone gets their own bag of hammers, and I think people are heartened by the fact that I feel grateful and optimistic."
Fox fairly glows from his sunny vision of life, and chronicled it in his 2002 book "Lucky Man: A Memoir" and hisrecently published "Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist."
"At first, I wanted to do an empirical look at the nature of optimism," Fox said. "But after attempting that, I decided that kind of writing was better left to a journalist. So I wrote a memoir through the lens of an optimist."
Yet that wasn't quite enough for Fox, who believed he could explore the science and nature of optimism through a medium he knew well -- television. He took his idea to ABC, which quickly latched on to his pitch.
As producer and host of "Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist," he searches the world for answers about what makes a person an optimist, and how approaching life with a cheerful heart can be healthy for the mind, body and even the pocketbook.
In the hour-long special, Fox talks to a man who went from a privileged background to working as a barista -- and couldn't be happier.
Fox travels to the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, where jollity is part of the king's mandate. And he said he looks at how President Obama campaigned successfully on a promise of positive change.
It's an ambitious project for Fox, 47, who was first diagnosed in 1991 with Parkinson's, a degenerative brain disorder that affects muscle coordination.
Fox didn't go public with his affliction until 1998. In the interim, he said, he drank heavily before finally facing up to the reality of the disease.
"It was my seven years in the wilderness," Fox said. "But I was driven from there by an innate desire to find the good in a tough situation. Vanity was one of the first casualties of my condition. When you don't care about how you look, it's incredibly liberating."
Fox had to leave his successful series "Spin City" in 2000 because of the disease. He has spent the past nine years advocating for stem-cell research and spending time with his wife, Tracy Pollan, whom he met on the set of "Family Ties," and their four children.
He said Parkinson's has not stopped him from fully enjoying his life. But he wonders why some people tend to be more sanguine than others.
In producing the special, "we even found that there is a genetic marker for optimism," Fox said. "No surprise there, I carried the genes to be an optimist."
Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field, said even if you aren't born an optimist, you can learn to become one.
"Some are lucky enough to be born optimists, but there are [ways to] convert pessimism to optimism," said Seligman."The main technique is to recognize your catastrophic thoughts and then fight against them, which takes a lot of discipline."
Those without that discipline can slip into a depression. Fox explores the flip side of optimism this season in the FX series "Rescue Me" as Dwight, a bitter, alcoholic paraplegic.
"That's a road I could have gone down," Fox said. "We all get these cataclysmic crucibles we have to go through and you have choices. It's important that you realize you may not have a choice about getting Parkinson's or cancer or losing someone you love, but outside of that you have hundreds of choices about how you choose to live your life. Dwight made dark choices. Dwight is the dark choice I could have made."
"Rescue Me" star and creator Denis Leary and Fox are long-time pals, and Leary jokes about how difficult it is to have a friend like Fox.
"He's just a pain . . . He's a really talented guy who's got tons of money and is totally selfless," Leary said good-naturedly. "It's like having a really good friend who's like Job."
Seligman said optimists such as Fox tend to have more friends than pessimists do.
"Company does not love misery," Seligman said. "It's nice to have someone as well- loved as Michael to be the poster child for optimism."
"Michael J. Fox: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist" airs Thursday at 10:02 p.m. on ABC.