Michael J. Fox Says 'Gratitude Makes Optimism Sustainable' While Living with Parkinson's Disease

"You can't wait for things to be great and then be grateful for that. You've got to behave in a way that promotes that," Michael J. Fox says in AARP The Magazine's December 2021/January 2022 issue

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Photo: Kurt Iswarienko

Michael J. Fox is sharing how he's stayed optimistic while living with Parkinson's disease.

For the cover story of AARP The Magazine's December 2021/January 2022 issue, Fox, 60, opens up about how "gratitude makes optimism sustainable" and what has been keeping him in a positive mindset.

"For one thing, I am genuinely a happy guy. I don't have a morbid thought in my head — I don't fear death. At all. But as I came through that darkness, I also had an insight about my father-in-law, who had passed away and always espoused gratitude and acceptance and confidence," the star says. "I started to notice things I was grateful for and the way other people would respond to difficulty with gratitude. I concluded that gratitude makes optimism sustainable."

Fox adds, "And if you don't think you have anything to be grateful for, keep looking. Because you don't just receive optimism. You can't wait for things to be great and then be grateful for that. You've got to behave in a way that promotes that."

Fox admits "some days are more difficult than others," but Parkinson's doesn't dictate how he lives his life.

"The disease is this thing that attached to my life — it isn't the driver. And because I have assets, I have access to things others don't," he says. "I wouldn't begin to compare my experience to that of a working guy who gets Parkinson's and has to quit his job and find a new way to live. So, I'm really lucky."

Michael J Fox
Michael J. Fox. Jason Merritt/Getty

As for the one thing that helped Fox recently? "Back to the Future!" he says of the iconic film franchise he previously starred in.

"I came across it on TV last Christmas. And I thought I was really good in it, better than I thought I'd been. More importantly, I got the spirit of the movie," he says. "I understood it was just a big giggle and that we all need ... to take credit for what we've done and the lives we've touched and to occasionally step back a bit and appreciate that much of life has been great and that there's a lot more to live."

Fox was first diagnosed with Parkinson's, a long-term degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, in 1991 and later went public with his diagnosis in 1998. Following a successful acting career, filled with iconic roles on Spin City and Family Ties, he officially retired from acting in 2020.

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Fox, who is the 2022 AARP Purpose Prize Honoree, continues to focus on the Michael J. Fox Foundation — a non-profit he co-founded in 2000 to help find a cure for Parkinson's disease. "We created what has become this giant network of patients, scientists and institutions," he says.

"Patients are the key. Now they guide our agenda and have been critical, for example, to our promising work in trying to find biomarkers for Parkinson's, which would allow us to identify the disease in people before symptoms are evident, and to treat it pro-actively and get rid of it," Fox continues. "And we've got a lot of treatments that have gone through the FDA, and we've developed a great relationship with pharma researchers on Parkinson's drug development."

Through it all, Fox also hopes to leave a lasting legacy.

"I hope my children are a positive influence in the world. I hope people will enjoy my work as an actor and get something from it. At a deeper level, I hope people see sincerity in the things I've said and done," he says. "If I've positively helped anybody with Parkinson's, that's great, too. I appreciate the purpose and opportunity to help the foundation, to be part of something that's potentially so powerful and life-changing and world-changing — that's huge."

Fox concludes, "Beyond that — and this is kind of a vanity thing — a lot of really great guitarists have come up to me over the years and said they picked up the guitar because of the 'Johnny B. Goode' scene in Back to the Future. If I did anything in this life, I got John Mayer to pick up the guitar!"

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