Can adversity build resilience
Can adversity build resilience?

Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before.
Elizabeth Edwards.

It seems to me that all of us will go through tough times during our life, it’s really just a question of how difficult the times will be, and when they will occur. While looking back can be a really painful process, a key question if we want to be happy, is whether there is a way that we can get the most out of our past, in order to become  happier and more resilient in the future?

As part of the Happy Ground services, we often use an exercise known as the happiness timeline, which we have adapted from happiness researcher, Robert Holden. In this exercise, we ask participants to go through their lives, and plot on a graph how happy they have been. This encourages people to see what lessons they can learn from each period of their life, be it good or not so good, as well as leading to some fruitful discussion.

One of the key lessons we like to teach during this exercise, is that life is full of opportunities to learn. So if something unfortunate happens, there is always an opportunity to learn something that can make us happier in the future. To illustrate, I use the example of my mother’s long illness many years ago to show how my twin brother had taken a positive, empowering perspective of this event, while I had unfortunately taken a perspective which left me extremely unhappy for a long time, and less able to act effectively when needed.

This approach to looking at hard times in a positive light is supported by Petrea King, the Australian leukemia survivor who talks of life’s challenges as ‘gifts’ – gifts that provide us with an opportunity to learn to find peace in our lives. My late father Pieter once attended one of Petrea’s events, after which he tended to agree with her viewpoint.  I’ll never forget him saying that while he wished he hadn’t got cancer, it certainly had taught him a thing or two about what’s important in life.

But if thinking of difficulties as gifts is a little hard to get your head around, consider this – the validity of looking at unfortunate events as a learning opportunity is also backed by some empirical evidence. In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor states that things like bereavement, heart attack, military combat, physical assault and the like, are actually things that researchers have found to spur immense positive growth in many, many individuals, leading to a concept called ‘Post Traumatic Growth’. What is central to this is how people conceive of their hardship. Achor argues that:

…the people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what has happened, but by what they can make out of what has happened. These are the people who actually use adversity to find the path forward.

Now, I’m not saying we want to go through tough times, and I’m not saying some things aren’t incredibly difficult to deal with. But, if we want to get the most out of these unfortunate experiences, the question we need to ask, is how are we going to view these difficult times in our life? Are we going to learn from them to help us be stronger, more resilient, and happier in the future? Because as difficult as it may be at times, life is full of opportunities to grow and to learn, and take some lessons out of our past in order to help us become happier in the future. Even if that lesson is, ‘I survived and now I’m stronger’.

All the best,

Ivan