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Embracing hardship: a surprising secret to happiness

Research shows that we have more positive experiences than negative ones, yet research also shows that our brain tends to focus on the negative aspects of our lives. We take the good things for granted and blow up the problems. As a consequence, we tend to fall prey to the petty concerns and annoyances in our lives, letting them determine our well-being. Veterans I've worked with who have returned from the hellish experiences of war call our problems "First World Problems" (e.g. the car won't start, co-workers are annoying, or it's raining). As a consequence, our stress levels increase and we aren't as happy as we could be.

How can we capitalize on the gifts in our lives instead of letting negative experiences overshadow our well-being? By embracing, rather than resisting, the challenges.

Let's face it, the world is made of good and bad: Saints and murderers co-exist here, vicious tsunamis occur on the same tropical beaches of our dream vacations, a hellish war rages in Afghanistan while shopping is on as usual a short plane-ride away in the streets of Istanbul, the poor are malnourished in India but obese in America, women are prostituted and sold in Nepal but make up the greater percentage of graduates from Harvard and Yale, and while grandmothers, aunts, uncles, sisters, children and grandchildren all live piled together and poor in one household in Mexico, people are often affection-starved, lonely, and isolated in expensive mansions in the USA. Those that bring us the greatest joy also bring us the greatest pain. The person who has suffered the greatest trauma is also the one who can best heal others who have gone through the same...

A growing number of studies inspired by acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness are showing that -- rather than resisting them -- embracing difficult situations (e.g. pain or dependency due to illness) increases well-being. We can either choose to let the negative experiences we encounter bring us down, or we can choose to embrace them and thereby rise above them.

Challenges, uncomfortable as they may be, also afford us an incredible opportunity for learning. It's often when we lose what we have that we start to appreciate it: We appreciate our health when we have a cold; we appreciate the presence of our friends, partners and families when we miss them because they are away; we appreciate running water, paved roads and safe streets after visiting a country where these things don't exist. The darkest situations can bring out the greatest opportunities for kindness.

If the post office person looked less tired, we wouldn't have the opportunity to ask her how she is and to take care and have a good rest of the day, if our partner didn't get angry at us, we wouldn't have to learn to forgive them or to stand up for ourselves and say that's not okay, and if we didn't have too much on our plate with too little time, we wouldn't have the motivation to cultivate peace of mind and balance. If earthquakes hadn't taken place, we wouldn't have the opportunity to be overtaken with compassion and to donate the dollars we would have otherwise wasted on another pair of shoes to throw into the back of a closet.

The Chinese saying "Chi Ku Shi Fu" (eating bitterness is good fortune) highlights the idea that there is the opportunity for wisdom and growth in suffering. Post-traumatic growth is the experience of enhanced meaning that can happen as a consequence of trauma. Many of the veterans I've worked with have levels of wisdom and a commitment to service far beyond that of others who have not experienced the pain and tragedy that they have known. While we don't have control over the situations that life will bring to us, we do have a choice as to how we will react to them.

In our "pursuit for happiness" alone we can choose to let negative events bring us down. Or, by fundamentally understanding that our life is characterized by contrasts, we can start to experience gratitude and grow to greater levels of well-being, perspective, and wisdom.

Emma Seppala, PhD, is science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and a research psychologist at the School of Medicine. She is also a certified yoga, pilates, breath work and meditation instructor, and she recently published the book The Happiness TrackA version of this piece originally appeared on Psychology Today.

Previously: Jumping on the "happiness track" with author and Stanford psychologist Emma Seppälä and For a truly happy New Year, cultivate sustainable happiness
Photo by Klimkin

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