Imagine That

A February visit from the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come

Charles Dickens’ classic fable A Christmas Carol is inescapable during the holiday season. Now that we are in the midst of winter and free from the crush of holiday frenzy, let’s hold old Ebenezer at arms length and take another look.

First published in 1843, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge is retold in books, TV, and movies. The word “Scrooge” has become a noun in the English language, synonymous with “miserly.” The fact that this story still resonates a century-and-a-half after it was written is a testament to the commonality of its themes. Compassion is universal, although sometimes it takes scrutiny of the way we live our own lives before it comes out. This concept is known as the “Scrooge Effect,” and imagination plays a key role.

Mike Mann

What would you want your eulogy to say?

Ebenezer Scrooge felt bad for his behavior after visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, but he wasn’t really willing to change his behavior until the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future. Have you ever thought about what would happen if a Ghost of Christmas Future took you to your own funeral?

Eulogies, often delivered by friends and family members, detail personality traits of the deceased that the speaker believes to be standout. Think hard for a moment, and write it down if you wish: What would you want your eulogy to say? Ideally, how would you want to be described in terms of your personality, achievements, personal strengths, family life, professional success, and behavior towards others? When you have finished thinking this over, compare your ideal eulogy to your present lifestyle and behavior. Does the way you live justify these comments, or is there work to be done?

Does where you think of the future matter?

By analyzing the Scrooge Effect, modern psychologists are finding that Scrooge’s fictional transformation can also occur in real life. German psychologist Eva Jonas and her colleagues conducted several studies analyzing the effects of mortality salience — focusing on the end of life — on social behavior. In one study, participants were asked to rate how they felt about their favorite charities — how beneficial the charity is to society, how necessary the charity is to society, and how desirable the charity is to the participant personally.

The researchers threw a wrinkle into the experiment by interviewing participants in two different locations. The first was right across from a funeral home and the second was in front of a nondescript building. The results of this study showed that participants interviewed in front of a funeral home, who were forced to confront their own mortality while answering the questions, were far more benevolent in answering the questions than the participants who were interviewed several blocks away.

Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan believes that encouraging people to consider how they would like to be remembered after their death has various motivational benefits, including identification of long-term goals and assessment of the degree to which one is progressing toward making those goals a reality. Think once again about how you would like to be remembered. Can you use this to pinpoint some tangible goals for the future that you had previously overlooked? Most Americans, when asked to view their goals through the lens of mortality, realize that the key elements to happiness are personal relationships, spending time with loved ones, and sharing joy with others. When you look at your life considering the Scrooge Effect, do your goals coincide with these?

Although Ebenezer Scrooge was quite the unsympathetic character at the beginning of Dickens’ tale, by the end, he can teach us all a thing or two about examining our behavior and living our lives with compassion. Imagine that!

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