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The Beethoven Factor

The Beethoven Factor

Book Summary by Clayton Montez,
Atlantic University

Lincoln, Izzie, Mosha and other struggling like-minded souls didn't know each other, but they each possessed unique characteristics for invincible mortality that distinguished them above average sufferers. They are known as thrivers, living through what most people would consider a miraculous existence.

Their lives, like Psychologist Paul Pearsall, were fraught with tragedies. Yet, they had the ability to think themselves happy even through an awfully terribly sad life. They were ordinary people conquering extraordinary adversity such as life-threatening illnesses, unbearable torture, and unquenchable mental anguish. Dr. Pearsall found in them, as well as within himself, that they could cope with disaster in a positive way and emerge emotionally stronger. Their discoveries gave Pearsall new insights to share with us on how we can benefit from the experiences of the thrivers so that we too can weather crisis in stride with our daily living.

Pearsall, a survivor of stage IV cancer, writes in his new book, The Beethoven Factor: The New Positive Psychology of Hardiness, Happiness, Healing and Hope (Hampton Roads Press), that new research in the field of positive psychology teaches us how to develop more than just survival skills. We have the ability to frame our experiences of life's unavoidable challenges with an attitude to convert stress into personal discovery and transformation. "By making sense of why bad things happen to us", writes Pearsall, "we build our own unique explanatory system that helps us to fully engage our problems, learn and grow from them, and become stronger because of them." Thriving is a way of life that goes beyond coping or recovering for survival while discovering "a new adaptive meaning in life."

Charles Carver, professor of psychology at the University of Miami and a leading researcher studying the thriving response, defines someone who thrives as a "person who experiences the traumatic or stressful event and benefits or gains in some way from the experience and can apply that gain to new experiences, leading to more effective subsequent functioning." Thriving is getting stronger through trial and tribulation.

For Izzie, an 86-year-old concentration camp survivor who watched the Nazi soldiers shoot his family, had been tortured and starved to skin and bone, and slept in human waste for more than a year. An appreciation of life's simple pleasures kept him sane and vibrantly alive. Abraham Lincoln, one of the most famous thrivers in history, failed repeatedly in business ventures and was often defeated in political elections. Then he was elected president in 1860 during one of our country's most difficult times. Sullen and easily irritated, he was far from being an upbeat person. Yet, he was able to construe the events of his life and become stronger and wiser for his pain. In his words, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Pearsall illustrates Beethoven's life as the model thriver in Beethoven Factor because he represents the nature of the typical thriving response. Formerly suicidal, living in poverty and utterly deaf, Beethoven triumphed over his tragedies with life affirming joy through his music, thus demonstrating a creative consciousness percolating amidst desperate times.

While Beethoven Factor is not intended as a self-help book, it shows the life lessons learned by those who have already realized their thriver's invincibility. Pearsall distills their experiences into a "thriver's guide" and highlights the four primary distinguishing characteristics of those who thrive through crisis - hardiness, happiness, healing and hope. He affirms that we have the innate ability to endure life's turbulence and become better for it. In Beethoven Factor he provides the tools to help us recognize our own thriveability.

In order to understand the power of thriving, Pearsall illustrates its place within the conventional psychological crisis response model showing the six human reactions to the stress and strain of life:

1. Stress - the energy burning or kindling in lifesaving mode.

2. Relaxation - the deliberate intention to slow down and conserve energy.

3.Survival - active essential body functions to forestall immediate threats.

4. Recovery - restore healing and balance.

5. Resilience - bounce back completely and return to previous state of normalcy.

6. Thriving - the ability to function stronger and more joyfully prior to the occurrence of the trauma.

During a calamity we often move through the hierarchy of the crises response model from self-destructive emotional distress, to victimization and reconciliation, and onward towards stability. Depending upon the maturity of experience with the crisis that shapes our mental outlook, we may linger on any one particular level of the crisis response hierarchy, regress to a lower level, or transcend to the next level up.

Pearsall claims that experienced thrivers don't languish in the lower levels of the crisis response hierarchy. Instead of engaging in over reactive catharsis or "venting" - an exercise in kindling - thrivers re-visualize their way through challenges. Their emotional momentum carries them through the victim phase of the crisis life cycle relatively quickly. Thrivers also recognize that "just making it through" and existing at the survival level is never enough.

One account by Bonnie, a 47-year-old woman suffering from lupus erythematosus illustrates the above transitions on the crisis hierarchy in her words to a room full of medical students:

"Doctors work hard to look for problems, to prevent our suffering, and to help us survive and recover, but there is much more that you are missing... We want to get more well than before we got sick. We don't want to return to what we were. We want to go to new places in our lives because of what we went through. Otherwise, what is the point of it all?... I know I am dying, but I savor the moments of my living in ways many of you may not understand. Look closely at those of us who are suffering and growing... because there is strength there you may be missing."

Bonnie showed that her thriving reaction to her disease gave the strength to learn from it and to know how to fight and flow with it. Her testimony for invincibility tells us that thriving isn't finding "the answer" or accepting someone else's answers. According to Pearsall, "It is a continuing process of searching for our own answers within our own value and belief systems."

By observing the optimistic explanatory styles of thriving persons, we can get some new ideas about bolstering our own thriving response. Pearsall claims that we have a psychological immune system that responds much like our physiological immune system. Our history of responses to trauma can strengthen or weaken our psychological immune system depending upon how we learn from it. The way we sort out events that affect our lives determines most of their emotional, physical and spiritual impact. We are survivors, in recovery, or thrivers depending upon our personal outlook about life and its challenges in coordination with our psychological immune system.

Both the psychological and the physiological immune systems work together as one protective and life-enhancing unit. The following are four ways in which the two systems work together to allow us to experience the Beethoven Factor:

1. Psychological Immunization - trauma breeds insensitivity to further trauma.

2. Psycho-immunological Rapid Rebound - making sense out of trauma hastens recovery.

3. Psycho-immunological Hardiness - the experience of adversity and its aftermath takes the person to a higher level of functioning.

4. Lowered Expectations - adjusting expectations downward when necessary to allow the experience for happiness with less.

Beethoven's deafness was uniquely harsh for a musician and a composer. Despite unintelligible distortions of sound and an unstable tonal range, he created some of the world's most magnificent music. His psychological immune system helped him to hear what those having the ability to hear could not imagine by finding meaning through his disability. His demonstration for thriving showed Mosha, another Nazi death camp icon and thriver, how to creatively compose her own consciousness in the face of senseless cruelty.

Exposed to daily torture, Mosha found comfort in her ability to withhold her ability to play the piano for the Nazis as she considered that it was a "sacred gift she would never give them." She often imagined Beethoven's music and would exclaim, "If you will listen to Beethoven, you will hear the way to freedom."

The thrivers that were mentioned so far have shown that their innate and naturally resistant psycho-immunity works its magic when they remain mentally, emotionally, and spiritually engaged with adversity, instead of trying to compete with it. Pearsall writes, "By changing how you think about adversity and how to deal with it, you learn to think even more strongly. We do not thrive because we finally accomplish the impossible or overcome tremendous obstacles. We thrive because we mentally remain engaged with our problems long enough to find meaning that helps us accommodate to whatever happens to us."

A principle foundation for this belief system, Pearsall reflects, are the Buddha's Four Noble Truths:

1) Everyone suffers;

2) We create our suffering;

3) We can choose to avoid suffering; and

4) We can choose to minimize suffering.

These tenets instruct that suffering is a necessary evolutionary process that moves us to realize, awaken to, and maximize our ability to enrich our lives. According to one of the founders of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "The control of consciousness determines the quality of life... experiences only ever really happen to us if we decide to allow them into our consciousness." Therefore, the way that we may consider our tolerance for suffering affects our capacity to think things over and come out stronger and more adaptable from the process.

"Healing does not necessarily involve curing or fixing", says Pearsall, "but it always involves a sense of coherence." This sense includes how we explain our experience to ourselves, (our explanatory style), create or discover meaning in it (framing), and begin to think about how to handle it (creative consciousness). The tendency toward coherence means we try to find what's right with us rather than what's wrong. It helps us find meaning in our lives when there is so much that is crazy.

Hence, thrivers can find meaning in the random chaos of living because they can adjust their tolerance threshold to fit their thinking. The night before a 16-year-old was to accept a full football scholarship for a Big Ten school, a drunk driver paralyzed him for life. Reflecting on his plight, he remarked, "All the other guys in rehab are talking about their commitments to walking again. Not me. I'm learning how to accept the fact that I won't and am figuring out ways that I can have a great or even a better life because I am in a chair." Characteristic of thriving, this young lad lowered his aspiration about being able to walk again, but he raised his inspiration about enjoying life as best as he could make it.

While observing the challenges that thrivers faced, Pearsall created a consciousness catalyst survey that enables respondents to determine, on a yes or no basis, their perceived capacity to thrive, remain static, or regress. The "yes" answers inspire respondents to reflect on what they learned about thriving. The "no" answers show challenges to thriving they have yet to experience. Pearsall's twelve consciousness catalysts are:

1. Do you feel confidently independent?

2. Do you feel comfortably independent?

3. Have you experienced a failed close interpersonal intimate relationship?

4. Have you dealt with a major life disappointment?

5. Have you gone through serious financial concerns?

6. Have you found fulfilling, energizing work?

7. Have you known and overcome terrible fear?

8. Have you gone through serious illness and severe emotional and/or physical pain.

9. Have you formed a spiritual or religious belief system that helps you explain evil and cruelty in the world?

10. Have you known and become stronger because of a deep personal loss?

11. Have you felt total and complete vulnerability and helplessness?

12. Have you faced and become comfortable with your own mortality.

Pearsall's consciousness catalyst survey encourages us to think about whether the situations included within it move us to respond to crisis in a state of discovery, rather than recovery. Instead of being tough-minded and ruggedly defiant, thrivers characteristically process a crisis vigorously through an adaptive frame of mind. They challenge the status quo in the midst of the contradiction of becoming stronger through devastation while rejoicing and suffering simultaneously.

Framing events to construe meaningful insights does not suggest, "If we think it, it will happen." Thriving is not about assuming control of mind over matter. Pearsall notes, "No matter how much we put our minds on outside matter, it doesn't matter much. What does matter is what we allow to matter for us." Under most circumstances we do not have the ability to alter physical reality despite our most positive thoughts. However, we can plug in our psychological immune system to guide our thoughts and make sense of adversity.

Izzie knew he could not change the physical constraints of the prison walls in the Nazi death camp, but he could change his mind. He thrived because he learned to think about, explain, construe, and develop his own explanatory style, rather than try to move mountains, so that he could understand what his imprisonment meant for him.

Like the other thrivers, Pearsall recycled continuously through the kindling, surviving, recovery, and thriving phases of coping with his cancer. Similarly, he found strength through the four distinguishing characteristics of thriving - hardiness, happiness, healing and hope.

Positive psychology researcher Suzanne Ouellette Kobasa defines hardiness as "a set of beliefs about oneself, the world, and how they interact. It takes shape as a sense of personal commitment to what you are doing, a sense of control over your life, and a feeling of challenge." These three C's of commitment, control and challenge serve as a template for a highly adaptive and hardy consciousness.

Pearsall claims that throughout his experience with cancer the three C's of hardiness is not a goal, but a lifelong process: "Our hardiness cannot be judged based on conquering a problem or surviving a serious illness. It is most accurately viewed as what we choose to put in our minds when we are going through adversity."

According to the studies cited in Beethoven Factor, the hardiness component of thriving shows that there is a "stress buffering effect" experienced by those who assign meaning to their lives according to Kobasic's three C's. The way in which we construe stressful situations can protect against the impact of stress. One study on hardiness followed a group of 259 executives for five years. Those who possessed the three C's had stronger physical immune systems and had only half of the illnesses experienced by the executives who did not have these traits.

According to Pearsall's interviews with thrivers who showed Kobasa's hardiness factors, the following list depict the average hardiness consciousness:

1. A non-parental hardiness role model - hardiness is learned from a significant other

2. Cautious optimism - avoid foolhardy risk-taking

3. Problem-commitment - tenacious mental and emotional engagement

4. Social commitment - maintain a deep and abiding commitment to family and friends

5. Challenge - rugged individualism committed to a greater objective

6. Control - emotionally and mentally competent through a flexible explanatory system

7. Knowing when to give up control - let go of things beyond control and move on

Pearsall says that we are fortunate because we can learn from the thrivers where hardiness seems to come more naturally. By reflecting on the above profiles of hardiness, we can find guides for our own life that help us to see challenges where others see hassles. We can try to remain committed, even when so much seems to be distracting us from our own way of finding meaning in our lives. We can try to exert control when we can, and learn to give in and go with the flow when we can't.

For the second component of thriving, Csikszentmihalyi focuses on what we do to make ourselves happy no matter how difficult life is. He shows that thrivers can put aside their pain in their ability to concentrate and consciously create enough to lose themselves in the present joy of being alive. Thriver's do not depend upon external factors or life circumstances alone for happiness. They are able to cheer themselves up when things are looking down.

Contrary to popular beliefs that happiness is a result of doing and feeling well, Pearsall suggests that positive emotions may come first and lead to better outcomes. For thrivers, happiness is as much a means as it is an end. Bringing in some degree of happiness to our current situation builds what positive psychologist Barbara Frederickson describes as "enduring personal resources" that support psychological growth and improved well-being over time. Pearsall knew thrivers by their misfortune and how they could make themselves happy by construing their negative events in the most positive light possible.

Oftentimes a sense of humor helps to soften the blows of tragedy. It does not change the problem or lessen its significance, but it temporarily provides escape from the pain and buys time for us to find new meanings in whatever disrupted our explanatory system. Through our sense of humor, we are able to take charge, rather than be victimized.

Happiness is not an involuntary process. According to Pearsall, getting happy requires an intentional and conscious choice to take the comic approach to crisis. When its time to thrive, it is less important that other people can make us laugh than that we can make ourselves laugh. Happiness is a state of mind, and the following illustrations show the kind of happiness that characterizes the thriving response:

1. Don't get distracted from delight - seeing more options with a positive outlook than a negative one.

2. Avoid the hedonistic treadmill - freedom from expectations in materiality and accomplishments.

3. Don't think of time as money - unnecessary preoccupation with comfort, material reward, fame, health, or good luck becomes irrelevant to being happy.

4. Don't compare your happiness - "keeping up with the Jones" only brings more misery.

5. Flowing is enjoying - becoming fully engaged, engrossed, absorbed, and enjoyably immersed in the present while losing sense of self, time and place.

6. Enjoy the afterglow of adversity - finding value in surviving past negative events.

7. Find your feminine funny bone - humble modesty and vulnerability attracts social support.

8. Laugh to surrender, not control - to enhance feelings of group belongingness.

To sum up the role of hardiness and happiness in thriving, Izzie remarks, "If you want to thrive through your problems, you have to have a very strong mind, a hardy soul, and an extremely sensitive funny bone. When you laugh really, really hard, you usually shed tears, so that you can see that there isn't really much distance between the comedies and tragedies of life. They all mean you are living fully, and I think this is how you learn to thrive."

Pearsall contends that if we adopt a thriver's way of thinking by intentionally trying to construe a happier meaning when crisis strikes, adversity can actually add to our lives. Thriving requires full mental, emotional and spiritual participation to explore, take in new information and experiences, and expand the self. Rather than escape from the crisis in order to merely survive, we use thriving skills to make us hardier and happier than we might have been without them.

Pearsall describes the sickness response as a set of physiological, emotional, mental, and behavioral changes that tell us that we are actually getting ready to thrive. Our body is getting prepared to fight injury, infection, and psychological stress. It has a built in energy saver that signals us to slow down and relax so that it can use its energy to deal with its illness. Dealing with illness can wake us up to realize what we have ignored in life. Thus the healing response, the third component of thriving, describes how to resist illness by learning through sickness and finding benefits within it.

Thriving takes work and involves more than just absorbing things into our consciousness and reacting to them. It is a healing process through which we intentionally try to change the content of our consciousness and think in new ways to find more coherence in our lives. Building upon Piaget's concepts in the field of cognitive psychology for digesting mental thoughts, Pearsall creates a "diet plan for the mind" in order to help us to nurture a healthier mental outlook for ourselves - we are what we think we are.

Pearsall's Mental Healing Diet Plan


    • When you wake up, set the tone for the day by contemplating the thrill of being alive.
    • Think optimistically and talk to family members during breakfast. Avoid reading bad news in the newspaper.


    • Dwell on positive events and the people you love as a mental snack.
    • Take a consciousness break and contemplate while ignoring endless stream of outside pressures.
    • Avoid ruminating on old thoughts, on-going stressors, and negative emotions. Focus on what you're processing and with whom; and not on problems, hassles and stressful events.


    • Avoid junk ailments and think on soothing memories.
    • If you're feeling blue, compare previous unpleasant situations with the current one.
    • When you feel upset, sit down and shut up.
    • Take a mental afternoon nap and watch your thoughts drift by.


    • Mentally review the day from the perspective of what you learned that make your life better or made you think about life in a new, more creative, and positive way.
    • Don't allow distractions to share your focus on issues.


    • Think wonderful warm thoughts before going to sleep.
    • It's okay to entertain sad, anxiety inducing thoughts as long as your general mental diet is a calm, contented, and joyful one.

Pearsall advises that a good mental diet strengthens both the psychological and physiological immune systems by clarifying what is happening to us, why we become sick, and what it takes to become stronger. Furthermore, he cautions us to be careful of what we feed our consciousness: "It's not so much what you eat, but what is eating you that upsets your system." Many of Pearsall's patients who have tried his mental diet plan agree that the core idea -- that the thoughts we feed ourselves directly impact our health and healing - helped them to pay more attention to how they were nurturing their minds.

Trauma can help us to focus our attention on what we really need instead of what we have spent a lifetime thinking what we want. Speaking to the fourth component of thriving, Pearsall says hope depends upon a life explanatory system that construes the world we live in as the best possible of all worlds, even when things seem to go so terribly wrong.

Following the death of a hospitalized cancer patient in Beethoven Factor, the parents overheard a distraught physician lament, "A lot of good their hope did them." The mother soothingly replied, "Hope did everything for us. It was the energy that kept us going upward instead of feeling like we were always sliding backwards. Hope doesn't guarantee that you won't die, only that you can enjoy living."

"Whatever kind of hope thrivers had going into their traumas", Pearsall writes, "they seemed to use their optimism to come out of their crisis with renewed trust in the ultimate mysteries of the world and a hope that is infinite, sacred and unconquerable." Thrivers don't necessarily take bad news any differently than anyone else, but it's what they do with the news that allows them to thrive. They don't take negative news personally, see it as pervasive, or consider it permanent.

Hope is a way of feeling about life, and optimism is the way of thinking that makes us feel that way. Thrivers seem to show the ultimate form of hope, the benefit-finding skill that allows them even at the worst of times in the world to feel gratitude for the time they have and will still have to live in it. Pearsall lists some optimistic principles culled from his research and experiences for us to observe and learn from:

1. Hope itself is happiness - it elevates us to fell happier and hardier which increases chances for healing.

2. Hope allows forgiveness of past events - forgetting past mistakes helps to reduce anxiety caused by regrets and self-recrimination.

3. Hope requires accepting uncertainty and meeting new challenges - there are few facts in life on which to base certainty.

4. Hope is mental reframing - find meaning by creating a truthful, yet positive, perspective.

5. Hope is a willful lowering of expectations - adopt a relatively moderate tolerance for acceptable standards.

6. Hope is finding the best in the worst - make lemonade out of life's lemons.

7. Hope is remembering the simple things - pay attention to what matters in life that will enrich future memories.

8. Hope is getting unused to life - pay attention to life more appreciatively so that we and not our life circumstances will determine the content of our experiences.

9. Hope is beyond comparison - find positive anchors in our life that is not based on a competitive view and that is referenced to our life, not that of others.

10. Hope is being aware of being - be fully absorbed in what and how we are doing in the present moment.

11. Hoping is not wishful thinking - think in more creative, open, and adaptive ways that help us focus our wishes so that they become conscious acts of creation.

The four components of thriving are presented above with the idea that we will have some understanding of the thrivers code in order to keep hoping, aspiring, and searching for new ways to grow through our crisis. We may never have the mental, emotional, or spiritual wherewithal to fully adopt all of the tenets based upon Pearsall's research and personal experiences, but we can keep testing at our own best estimate what seems to be the truth that we can apply to our own life.

According to positive psychologist Sandra Schneider, "The illusion of the good life is likely to break down for those who lull themselves into complacency with self-deceptive beliefs, but the illusion is likely to become a reality for those who are optimistic within the fuzzy boundaries established by active engagement in life."

Beethoven, Izzie, Mosha, and the other thrivers in Beethoven Factor chose to go beyond thriving and recovering and become stronger, wiser, and more fully and authentically alive because of their problems. If we are to thrive, we must be alert to how we are evolving. Pearsall remarks, "We don't have to wait for a catastrophe in our lives to decide to engage in the creative consciousness that characterizes thriving. We can decide now to do the required mental work, tune in to our psychological immune system, and go beyond languishing through life."

One Chinese thriver sums up Beethoven Factor simply as: "Let go, have faith, calm down, don't despair, suffer wisely, cheer up."

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