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Rather be Dead than Disabled?

by Jonathan Field

Jonathan Field Blog....go visit please


If you’re American, 52% of you said yes…

This was the news released in a recent survey commissioned by There’s a very insightful breakdown the numbers at In fact, the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to choose death.

Much earlier in life, I might have answered the question the same way.

But, then, two things happened that changed my world and, in turn, my understanding of the issue.

When I was a little kid, my best friend’s dad was diagnosed with MS. My recollection was that he was in his late 20s or early 30s. He was a big, athletic, vibrant guy, filled with machismo. The one you’d expect to fall squarely into that 52% with his answer. But, instead, he took a different approach.

He not only chose to live with every fiber of his being, he stayed home until the very end.

While there is still no cure, therapies and treatments for MS were nothing like they are today. So, there came a time where he could no longer move, then no longer take care of himself. He would lie propped up in a big old chair in between the open den and kitchen, right in the middle of everything.

Life happened all around him, all day long.  After he’d lost the ability to speak, his only mode of communication was to blink.  One for yes, two for no.

This was the man you’d expect to be in the 52%, but he wasn’t.

Because he loved his wife and adored his kids on a level that, for him, outweighed anything else. For as long as he was capable, he wanted to, at the very least, be able to watch his kids grow up, grow wise, fall in love, laugh, cry and just participate in life.

To him, there was no greater gift. And, as long as he could receive it, he chose life. His wife asked him whether he wanted to keep going many times. And, until the end, the answer was always yes. After nearly two decades, he finally passed, complications from pneumonia.

Before I was a father, I’d have very likely been in the 52%.

And, though, you can never answer the question in earnest without being disabled, the circumstance of a disability would impact the answer and it’s a position I hope never to be in, for the same reason my friend’s dad chose life, I believe I’d do the same.

But, there is a second reason that has compelled a change in the way I’d answer this question.

Just this year, I finished writing a book on coming alive with a focus on career. The process of writing that book required a tremendous amount of research over the last two years. Much of that research is in the book, but much of it was also edited out. Among the edited material was a bit of research that blew my mind.

We are all astonishingly capable of habituating to a change in circumstance.

According to Happiness Hypothesis author and psychology professor, Jonathan Haidt, we have a remarkable ability to habituate to circumstances and surroundings.  This ability can serve as a powerful buffer to untoward circumstances and it can also, just as quickly, dissipate the sputter of increased joy that follows a positive change in circumstances.

In fact, accordingly to Haidt, a 1978 study led by researcher Philip Brickman contrasted the overall happiness of the average Joe with that of 22 recent lottery-winners.  Remarkably, despite grossly differing circumstances, levels of wealth and good-fortune all reported nearly identical levels of overall happiness.

The lottery winners had quickly habituated to their new levels of wealth, leading Brickman to describe the relentless appetite for more as a “hedonic treadmill.”

Even more fascinating, in that study, Brickman went a step further.

He contrasted the overall happiness of a group of 29 people who had recently become paraplegic or quadriplegic and found little difference in overall levels of happiness from able-bodied people.

About this, Haidt writes,

The winner’s pleasure comes from rising in wealth, not from standing still at a high level, and after a few months the new comforts have become the new baseline of daily life.  The winner takes them for granted and has no way of rising further…

At the other extreme, the quadriplegic takes a huge happiness loss up front.  He thinks his life is over, and it hurts to give up everything he once hoped for.  But, like the lottery winner, his mind is sensitive more to changes than to absolute levels, so after a few months, he has begun adapting to his new situation…He has nowhere to go but up, and each step gives him the pleasure of the progress principle.

So, how we “think” we’d feel about a dramatic change in life, both positive and negative is very often radically different than how we’d “actually” feel, should that event occur.

Knowing this would’ve caused fewer raised eyebrows when, in 2004, wheelchair-bound physicist, Stephen Hawking, told the New York Times, “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was twenty-one.  Everything since then has been a bonus.”  (12/12/2004 NYT Mag 37).

It appears that able-bodied people have a remarkably distorted view of the lies of people living with disability.

I don’t claim to know the daily challenges and struggles of anyone living with a disability, but it seems the gap in perceived reality and reality is, indeed, fairly massive. Large enough to fuel 52% of able-bodied people to believe, should some serious disability befall them, they’d rather be dead.

In the end, it’s a question nobody likes to think to about.

But, exploring the answer, or at least exploring why you’d answer the way you answer is a powerful process. At a very minimum, it will likely change the way you relate to those in your life and those who pass through your life who are living with disabilities.

I’d love to know how you guy’s feel about this. Is it something you’ve ever thought about? Are you on the other side of the question, living with some phsyical disability? Do you share your life with others who do? Are you shocked by the survey results?


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