Crafting Happier Endings

Crafting Happier Endings

Left alone with an abusive, paranoid schizophrenic mother for much of her childhood, Lillian*, 85, admits to being generally suspicious of people’s intentions. But she is also extraordinarily willing and able to shift directions—her CV includes stints as an actress, portrait painter, theater professor, college dean, community organizer, and entrepreneur. Her husbands’ careers required several moves, including an extended stay in Japan, forcing Lillian to routinely adjust her own professional goals. “I had no difficulty doing this,” she says. “I counted on the permanence of nothing in my life except my ability to meet the challenge of change.”


Greater knowledge of the cognitive adaptations that stressed kids like Lillian tend to make could lead to curricula and school environments more geared toward their strengths and attentional styles. Today, Ellis says, most interventions for kids identified by teachers or social workers as high-risk take their metaphorical inspiration from cats’ claws—kids “come into school like a cat with its claws extended.” And all efforts to help them are variations on “trying to get the cat to retract its claws—to be more trusting, to be more comfortable in school, to be more connected to the teacher.” In other words, they are pushed to act more like kids from low-stress, low-risk environments. But reprogramming people is hard, he says, and educators could find it easier to work with children’s adaptations rather than fighting them.


Tumultuous childhoods, as novelists and therapists have long known, can make for more complex and compelling characters. “People who haven’t suffered are as interesting as shrubbery,” says therapist Ian Morgan Cron. “With happy people,” he half-jokes, “you think, Oh man, I can’t get any purchase in this conversation with this person, because there are no cracks.”


But Cron has seen in his practice how growing up in a culture steeped in negative assumptions about one’s intelligence, temperament, and mental state can lead an individual to play out self-fulfilling prophecies: I’ll never recover from what I went through. I didn’t have the foundation you need to get the most out of life. Skeptical of their own prospects, such people might shy away from opportunities or get lost in the pain and bitterness of their experiences.


While a fuller understanding of the effects of chaotic beginnings gain societal traction, individuals who can learn to grapple with the stress of their past and overcome bleak views of their future can generate new hope. “We are the stories that we tell about ourselves,” Cron says. “At group retreats, I ask people to turn to the person on their right and say, ‘Would you please just tell your life story in five minutes, in which you appear as the victim?’ When that’s done, I say, ‘Now turn to that same person and tell the same story from the perspective of you as the hero.’ And they say, ‘What? Is that allowed?’ Well, sure.


“You have agency in this matter, even without revising history. It happened. We’re not going to deny the facts,” he says. “But the way we interpret history is up for grabs, and it can have a tremendous amount of healing power.”

People who have already embraced every aspect of their past don’t need convincing. “I’m not a denier, but rather a realist,” says Lillian, who recently self-published her first novel. “I’ve learned to creatively change what can be changed and to live with what can’t be altered. And I always turn to the fact that I’m still here and actively in the mix. I strongly believe that we all have so much more within us than we allow to develop. The possibilities are endless—not threatening.”


*Names have been changed.

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The Upside of Unpredictability

The Upside of Unpredictability

To pursue the question of potential upsides of chaotic childhoods, Griskevicius and a team led by Chiraag Mittal focused on two elements of executive function: inhibitory control, or inhibition; and task switching, the ability to disengage from one task and pick up another. They hypothesized that people who grew up amid unpredictability would fare worse on measures of inhibition but better at task shifting, especially in situations that evoked elements of their childhood.


They primed half of their subjects to think about instability by having them read an article titled “Tough Times Ahead: The New Economics of the 21st Century”; the other half read a text about a person looking for lost keys. In computer-based challenges routinely used to measure inhibition, people who grew up in unpredictable environments showed no significant difference from their peers under the control condition of having read the article about the keys. Primed with the article about economic uncertainty, however, they performed significantly worse.

The results were different when it came to task shifting: In the control condition, the two groups performed similarly. But in the uncertainty condition, those who experienced unpredictability in childhood outperformed their privileged peers—they were faster in shifting focus without a loss of accuracy.


Developmental psychologist Bruce Ellis of the University of Utah describes this trait as the ability to “unstick yourself,” a type of cognitive flexibility that correlates positively with traits such as creativity. It may be that individuals raised in stressful environments have a greater willingness to leave something undone—a lack of perfectionism that helps them do what’s necessary without dwelling on what could have been—compared with those raised in homes with the luxury of routinely expecting perfection.


“We are not in any way suggesting or implying that stressful childhoods are positive or good for people,” Mittal and Griskevicius have insisted. Still, a closer look at the potential strengths of every individual, no matter his or her background, could help overturn stereotypes, both in the culture at large and in the minds of those who have grown up in uncertain environments that tend to foster self-doubt.


Kids who grow up feeling that nothing is under their control may turn into adults who don’t particularly value feeling in control, but that could be an asset for those making their way in a treacherous economy. Consider Steve*, a New York-based software developer whose most vivid childhood memories of Christmas involve hiding under the couch in the basement to avoid getting caught in his parents’ verbal crossfire. “They spent so much time fighting with each other that they did not have much energy left over to tend to us,” he says. Steve recalls wanting to help around the house, but never being told what to do or, when he completed chores, whether he had done an adequate job. Around age 10, he started cutting his arm with a razor blade, hoping to get attention—to no avail.


“Even during the good times there was a sense that you were on borrowed time and disaster was just around the corner,” he says. “And it always was.”

As an adult, though, Steve has proven to be highly flexible, with a willingness to take significant risks with little hesitation. He is sure that his upbringing has helped him through rough career patches. When facing big questions—where to work or how much to invest in a relationship—he has a high tolerance for ambiguity, for living in that in-between stage in which one does not know whether success or crushing failure awaits.

Evidence of other possible cognitive advantages is gradually emerging. Chiraag Mittal, now at Texas A&M, is looking into the effects of childhood environment on memory. His early findings indicate that people who grow up in unpredictable environments are better at what’s known as working memory updating; they have the ability to forget information that is no longer relevant and to attend quickly to newer data that is.


Bianchi believes that growing up with stress may promote certain forms of associative learning—the ability to recognize that multiple elements of one’s environment are connected in some way or that certain behaviors will be rewarded or punished in a given scenario. Growing up in an environment that’s constantly in flux, she says, may make people “more aware of and responsive to changes in the environment.” In the lab this means subjects may be quicker to perceive that they have been given wrong instructions to a computer game—and to change their behavior accordingly. “This would have profound implications,” Bianchi says. It means that people who are used to being able to rely on rules and to trust instructions—such as those who grow up in more stable environments—may stick with the rules even in the face of negative results. Meanwhile, those from stressful backgrounds may be quicker to explore other possibilities and stumble upon novel solutions.