Superhero Therapy and Mental Health

When we think of Superman, all sorts of powers come to mind: flight, heat vision, near-complete invulnerability. But we may overlook his greatest characteristic: compassion. He chooses not to harm. Superman’s greatest power is his compassion. Throughout every successful iteration of the character that one virtue remains constant: he is an extremely powerful and endlessly resourceful being motivated by bottomless reservoirs of compassion to help people in whatever way he can. He experiences great distress when he is not able to aid someone in pain or peril.

The beauty of superhero stories, for me, is that they invite us to identify with the superhero, to imagine ourselves with their burdens and challenges, but also with their capabilities. Superhero stories are prevalent in some of the therapy work that I do. The characteristics of well known and loved heroes, and villains, are often catalysts for deeply personal disclosures and discussions by patients. For example, following the release of Black Panther, many of my patients were split about their favorite character in the movie, Killmonger or T’Challa. I call this Superhero Therapy: incorporating the characteristics of Superheroes into evidence-based therapy (CBT, Mindfulness, etc.).

The compassion of Superman and mental health
Dr. Steve Cole, a medical researcher at UCLA, conducted a study in 2012 assessing the characteristics of ‘very happy people’ and the possible relation to physical health. They found that people who were happy because they lived for pleasure or fun (sometimes also know as “hedonic happiness”) had high inflammation levels but that, on the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning had low inflammation levels. Inflammation is implicated in a host of chronic illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, and obesity. A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. Compassion is strongly associated with longevity and good health. 

Another way in which a compassionate lifestyle may improve longevity is it protect us against stress. A large study by the Department of Psychology at the University at Buffalo found that stress did not predict mortality in those who helped others, but that it did in those who did not. In addition, people who practiced a more compassionate lifestyle, including volunteering and community service, had significantly lower rates of anxiety and depression.

Finally, compassion may boost well-being by increasing a sense of connection to others. A number of studies have shown that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. Social connection strengthens our immune system (research by Steve Cole showed that the same genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation), helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life.

The compassion of Superman can be a useful metaphor in psychotherapy, where people are often struggling with difficult questions:

Are they doing or accomplishing enough?
How are they going to manage restraint and impulse control and still have a voice?
How are they going to be there for others and self-care at the same time?

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Embolden Psychology
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