There is finally some reason for hope that COVID 19 will eventually be vanquished as the vaccine rolls out, but the road remains long, bumpy and with plenty of challenges still ahead. Even the strong may feel spent, but psychology research shows that people who have lived through adversity can actually end up feeling happier than those who haven’t. Difficult experiences can help us learn to savor the small joys of daily life, grow our compassion and actually increase happiness. In what we hope is the final stretch of a global tragedy, learn how to wring enough good out of the bad to make it over the finish line.
When the going gets tough . . . people often end up happier. Strange as it seems, research shows that people who have experienced adversity are actually happier than those who have not faced such challenges. Although no one welcomes a global pandemic or personal crises, knowing that severe challenges can lead to growth and greater contentment can reframe how we view them and how we cope.
Research with people who have experienced two to six really challenging life events (such as divorce, serious illness, bankruptcy, job loss and the death of a loved one) finds they report feeling happier than people who have had a much easier time. Psychologists call this effect post-traumatic growth.
“They give people this scale and ask them to think about positives that might have come out of their difficult experiences,” explains Catherine Sanderson, Ph.D., in the Portable Humanist Podcast Series. An Amherst College psychology professor, Sanderson is the author of The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health and Longevity.
People report changing priorities, a greater appreciation for the value of their life, a sense of closeness with others, a new sense that they can handle difficulties, greater spiritual understanding and connection, a belief that they are strong and a sense of the goodness of others.
What is your experience?
With the entire planet in the throes of shared adversity, Sanderson suggests stepping back to ask whether the last year has led you to experience some of these same growth edges. “Because all of these are opportunities that we have to actually change and shift and develop who we are,” she says. She suggests asking what this time has taught you about yourself. Or, how you might live differently.
There is, indeed, profound sadness and loss on a global, organizational and personal level. But there might also be growth, compassion, greater insight and even deeper happiness. Sanderson advises starting with these three areas where you are most likely to find post-traumatic growth.
Adversity enhances small joys
The old saw about stopping and smelling the roses applies here, now backed by research. It’s all about savoring. Psychologists can actually measure the extent to which an individual savors positive experiences, and the research shows that people who have been through adverse experiences get better at appreciating the small joys of daily life.
Savoring is something you can consciously embrace and encourage team members to do as well. When a senior leader compliments your work, consider sitting quietly for a moment to let it sink in. Enjoy it the way you might a decadent piece of chocolate. You can also call the team’s attention to small victories and then celebrate, prolong and savor them.
Adversity builds compassion
People who have experienced illness, loss and major setbacks can better empathize when others face similar circumstances. That doesn’t mean you cannot provide support to people facing a challenge you have never dealt with; it does mean that tapping into your own moments of crisis can help you imagine how someone else might feel.
There is significant opportunity right now to show understanding and compassion to others. Reach out to colleagues who feel overwhelmed, torn between work and home, worried about job loss and generally anxious about the future. Simply showing compassion for someone else’s anxiety can lessen it, and build positive feelings in yourself as well.
Adversity builds resilience
“People who have been through adverse experiences develop a greater sense of confidence in their own ability to cope when things don’t go particularly well,” Sanderson says. Those feelings can have a lot of spillover. Making it through a conflict-filled meeting or an especially difficult presentation enables you to lay down an empowering track record that is likely to bolster your overall sense of certainty about how you will handle the next challenge.
As a leader, you can help others build their resilience by providing opportunities for team members to stretch, experience setbacks and try again with clear support systems in place.
One of the most important takeaways Sanderson pulls from psychological research is that specific strategies for finding satisfaction and happiness apply even in the midst of a global tragedy. “Because really what the research would show is that positivity is contagious, like the flu or the coronavirus.” Finally, something actually worth spreading.