The Theory of Everything
Did having a sense of purpose and love in his life extend Stephen Hawking’s life beyond all medical expectations?
I’m not sure who I’m writing this review for. You may be a Positive Psychologist interested in the psychological ideas within The Theory of Everything. You may be someone who has watched the films and wants to discuss what inspired you. Also, I’m wondering if there are some people who have never seen the film and want to decide whether to watch it. I am unsure of the existence of the latter group, as so many people seem to have watched this film and know about the life works of Stephen Hawking.
There was so much that was inspirational about this film. I’ll start with the premise of the story. About a young brilliant scientist, Stephen Hawking, who discovers he has a progressive illness, a form of motor neurone disease whilst at University. The horrific nature of the illness and its slow debilitation so that the patient gradually loses control over their ability to walk, move and talk, is stark within the film, but just as stark is Hawking’s desire to not only overcome this challenge but to not have it as the main focus in his life.
For me this film is partly about meaning and purpose and partly about love. It is clear throughout the film that there is a greater meaning and purpose to Stephen’s life than his condition. The disease for him seems to be a major obstacle he has to put up with, but he never takes his eyes off his dream, his work, his ambitions, his goal. His goal is to find a simple equation that explains everything, the start of the universe, our existence, our world; the Theory of Everything. Wong (2011) talks of the four pillars of Positive Psychology, meaning and purpose being one. Having a sense of purpose is on one level about having goals and ambitions but on a deeper level relates to our existential values and what really matters in life, and is about committing to something higher than oneself. When asked about which research he believes to be true, Stephen replies “it is irrelevant what I believe” inferring that his research is not about his values but something more important and more impartial than him or his beliefs.
He and Jane, his wife seem to experience tension around the issue of Christianity where Stephen is an atheist and feels that the belief in God or the supernatural goes against scientific findings, whereas Jane is a Christian. In my view, Stephen has more in common with religious people than one might think. He is driven by a higher purpose than himself, his research aims to discover the very essence of life and why we and the universe exists, perhaps in a similar way to religion, asking the question; why are we here? I wonder if Stephen had not had his life works and this sense of purpose to keep him going, whether it would have affected his resilience and ability to cope with his condition? Some research shows that religious people are happier and I am sure that Stephen was happier in his life for finding this sense of purpose, for feeling his major contribution and legacy to the world. I think Stephen may be conflicted about the meaning of existence and the big questions he is asking. I think it might not be coincidental he married a woman who was not only a Christian but who specialised and loved the arts, the opposite of himself as an atheist and with a love of science. He did recognise religion within his scientific explanations. For instance he talks about the “mind of god” as something we can discover through the theory of everything, much to Jane’s pleasure as she sees this as an acknowledgement that God exists within his research. His sense of purpose and how it affects his wellbeing reminds me of the role played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Imitation Game, whose life was so much richer from a sense of purpose he felt by attempting to crack an impossible code to help England to win the war. When he lost this sense of purpose his wellbeing was affected in a very negative way.
The film made me think of Science in a new way. I have always been dis-interested in Science but the film and subsequent reading about Hawking has made me wonder if Science can explain things about our existence that I hadn’t realised before. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Where did it all begin? These are questions many of us are interested in and yet people do not always turn to Science for the answers, but perhaps the disciplines of philosophy, psychology or history. I have always thought Science is about the way things work where I have little interest, but I hadn’t thought about it explaining why we are here, how and why we live, learning more about our world and the universe. In the film, we see Hawking talking about his philosophy in life and his wonder and awe about the universe having “no boundary” and how this is similar to the potential of human endevour. I will definitely now buy Hawking’s book “The Brief History of Time” and see what I can find out about the link between Science and this type of philosophy.
The other agent acting as a catalyst for Stephen’s accomplishments was love. Maybe I’m an old romantic but I believe in the power of love and how it can redeem us and change our course in life which would not have been the same if we hadn’t had that love there. Towards the end of the film Stephen looks at Jane whilst watching his children running around, and says “Look what we made”. The love between the couple helped Stephen carry on in the dark times especially just after he was diagnosed when he felt like giving up and pushing everyone he loved away. Fortunately Jane wouldn’t let him. When diagnosed Stephen was told he had 2 years to live and that his brain would be unaffected but he wouldn’t be able to share his thoughts with anyone. For someone with a burning question that he wanted to answer and share with the world, the film shows us how torturous this was for Stephen. But Jane shows love and care that many would find difficult or impossible under such difficult circumstances. To care tirelessly for someone in that way is something that most of us can’t imagine – that almost unconditional selfless love for another where their needs are greater than our own. The love between the two of them is explained so sensitively through the film and for me, this may have been the catalyst that gave us the scientific teachings of Stephen Hawking. Without Jane by his side and the love he found with her and the great joy that were his children, would Stephen have found the strength to carry on and accomplish the things that he did?
There is research that says that people with high levels of wellbeing live 7.5 years longer, so I wonder, did having sense of purpose and love in his life help Stephen to defy the doctor’s predictions and live many decades of life instead of the predicted two? Can having love and meaning in your life aid a long happy life even with grave disease?
Stephen Hawking lived his life in wonder and awe of humanity and the science behind our existence and the creation of the universe. He didn’t need religion to give him this sense of purpose or meaning or wonder or awe in life, but he found it in the world around him and in other people. He believed that what we were capable of was incredible and that we all have potential. His view of life is a philosophy in itself. Here in the opening of the Paralympic games, he describes this philosophy and for me, this brilliant scientist has much in common with us positive psychologists and our studies on human strengths, happiness, our great potential and the meaning and purpose of our lives:
“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the Universe exist. Be curious. There ought to be something special about the boundary conditions of the Universe, and what can be more special than that there is no boundary?…
And there should be no boundary to human endeavour. …
We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics. However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.” Stephen Hawking, Paraolympic Opening Ceremony