Why You’re Stronger Than You Think

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Photo: jurvetson

You are far more resilient than you think. In his book Stumbling on Happiness Daniel Gilbert argues persuasively that most of  us consistently overestimate the negative impact of adverse events (like being fired) on our lives. When asked to imagine such events happening in the future, we tend to imagine such futures including only the negative emotional impact of the negative event and fail to consider all the good things that will also occur simply as a result of our continuing to live. So when we imagine the possibility that we might lose a job, be stood up at the altar, or fail to gain admission to the college of our choice, we’re only able to imagine the pain such events would cause us—and have great difficulty imagining we might feel good about anything else in our lives simultaneously or that such pain will eventually fade away as new opportunities (unpredictable from today’s perspective) inevitably arise.

But what happens when such events actually strike? Our imaginations cast themselves directly into the darkest possible futures as if not only such futures were unalterable but also as if  we had no power to influence their course at all. As I wrote in the Introduction to The Undefeated Mind, “…we immediately pronounce final judgment on the things that happen to us, deciding whether they’re good or bad in the first moment they occur—[and in so doing] surrender our agency, abandoning the belief that we have the power to create meaning out of what happens to us.” In a single moment we construct a nightmare narrative that extends not only through every aspect of our lives but right up to the end of it.

But the truth is that these narratives, while often reasonably accurate in the short term, become progressively less so, and invariably come to predict a more distant future that is almost certainly not what ends up actually coming to pass.

At least, with respect to our ability to be happy. The set-point theory of happiness argues that our level of happiness tends to be relatively fixed throughout our lives, changing transiently in response to events—both good and bad—but then invariably returning to its baseline over relatively short amounts of time. Just as the joy that good things bring us eventually fades as we habituate to it, so does the pain of loss in most cases. This was illustrated in a study of 205 widows and widowers, who demonstrated the following patterns of grief after they lost their spouses:

According to the data from the study, most people returned to their previous baseline level of functioning 18 months after losing their spouse. Only 15% of subjects did what almost 100% of people predict will happen to them after such a loss: go on to experience chronic grief. (As well only 8% of subjects were chronically depressed at the beginning of the study, ending up slightly more depressed by the end—though an almost equal number, 10%, fit into the depressed-improved category, starting off depressed and then becoming happier once their spouse had died!) Also interesting to note is that only 10% of subjects followed the common grief pattern in which they became depressed for a while and then returned to their original baseline. The most surprising finding, however, was that a full 46% of subjects never became depressed at all (the resilient pattern).

I define resilience as either the ability to resist becoming depressed in the first place or the ability to return to one’s original affect after suffering a loss or a setback. In the study above, that would include more than half the subjects. Certainly the outcomes might have been different if the average age of the subjects was, say, fifteen rather than sixty-five. But other studies of other populations and other types of losses suggest we’re all more likely to fit into the “resilient” category than we think.

The problem, however, is that simply knowing we’re most likely to recover from today’s horrific blow doesn’t necessarily lessen the suffering such a blow causes us in the short term. And such suffering can indeed be immense. For this reason, I can think of no more urgent task in life than to find ways to make ourselves fit into the resilient category or to speed up the process of common grief. This is, in fact, why I wrote The Undefeated Mind: to offer scientifically validated methods for accomplishing those tasks. Part of the process I outline involves accepting that when adversity strikes, a significant number of us (thought based on the study above, not all) are going to feel bad. They’re going to feel scared, depressed, and anxious. But those feelings need not paralyze us. Nor does their presence necessarily limit our ability to manage such adversity in the long run.

Yet the even the most powerful ideas for generating resilience will remain ineffective if we only read about them but do nothing to put them into practice. But that’s exactly what I want to encourage everyone to do who is struggling. And remember that when adversity strikes, your ability to predict the future may be terrible but your ability to create it is far greater than you suppose.

Next Week: The Double-Edged Sword Of Attachment, Redux

8 comments to Why You’re Stronger Than You Think

  • Catherine Heath

    This is a very interesting article that explores why we fear or feel anxious about future tragic events. It is true that things are rarely as awful as you anticipate them to be and with appropriate strategies one can learn to cope with loss in a healthier way and also maintain more emotional balance while suffering grief.

    However, it has been mentioned that everyone possesses a natural baseline of happiness that one returns to despite any temporary happiness or depression-inducing event.

    I would like to know what you think determines this happiness baseline, and, if it is possible to raise this baseline, what sort of techniques might be used to accomplish this?

    Catherine: It does indeed appear possible to raise one’s happiness set point. At the risk of being self-serving I wrote about this in Chapter 2 of my book The Undefeated Mind. I will be writing about it even more extensively in my next book.

    Alex

  • Astrid

    I must be the exception. My husband walked out of our lives after 26 years. It has been 4 years since that painful day and we are now just filing. But it feels as if it happened yesterday. Many days I doubt I will make it. Some days I really believe I will not. Does this suggest that I was born on a rainy day? Someone once told me that all men seek happiness… even the ones that hang themselves. I believe it.

    Astrid: Chronic grief, in which people find themselves unable to move on, is obviously very real. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to seek counseling.

    Alex

  • I have thought about this before in my life and have known about returning to what ever happiness you normally are. In my life I could only think of one or two things I might actually change and yet they were “great experiences” I got past. They were just stupid to have done in the first place. Every time I think of something I would like to have been better in my life I realize it would have required me to be a different person than I ended out and I basically wouldn’t change that or want to do the work it would have required.

  • Cecilia

    Alex:
    … So what’s the difference between “resilience” and just not caring?

    Cecilia: We can tell ourselves we don’t care, but in fact we have little control over what we care about. And no one cares about nothing. Thus, “not caring” often becomes an exercise in suppressing pain, which has been shown in study after study to be a failing strategy in the long run, often leading to a perpetuation of pain that if only admitted to and experienced, would eventually resolve itself.

    Alex

  • Mitch

    Please do write more about “resetting” upward that set point of happiness.

    Mitch: Okay, I will.

    Alex

  • Jim

    I do believe in the resilience of people, but like Astrid, I guess I’m one of the exceptions. After 21 months since the death of my wife (ovarian cancer) I think I am stuck with chronic grief, which sucks. Don’t suggest counseling: Have been at it for 21 months with 3 or 4 counselors, and still continue, which gets discouraging when you don’t see results. I’m beginning to think there’s something wrong with me, like suffering from PTSD or something. It’s not that I don’t want to feel better because I’m becoming mad about dealing with this state of mind. I’m also now mad that cancer not only took my wife’s life but is robbing me of mine. I have much to be thankful for—at 67 I’m financially set, healthy, good friends and family, but depression and anxiety (although improved lately—I take no medications, although I did) still dog me, thwarting my efforts to work toward a “new normal” that I know I must do. So I have a stagnant lifestyle (unlike my life before my wife’s passing) where many days, like today, I sit at home thinking rather than doing (losing my wife just knocked the stuffing out of me). Any suggestions, Alex?

    Jim: Very difficult to make useful suggestions not knowing much more about you, but I would say sitting at home thinking is exactly the wrong thing to do. Make yourself take some action to restart your life, even if you don’t feel like it. Feeling follows action as much as action follows from feeling. Do something to become more socially engaged even if it’s the last thing you want to do. If you haven’t read my book, The Undefeated Mind, you might check it out. I have a chapter on dealing with loss. Best of luck to you.

    Alex

  • I have to say that I agree with your perspective. As a counselor, what I struggle with is helping people understand how to believe this for themselves. Suffering should be viewed as a temporary problem but some people take it on as a lifestyle. So many people have the capacity to extend themselves on behalf of others to the point of compromising their own quality of life but are unable to help themselves. In fact, they turn on themselves and their quality of life is compromised.

    In addition, I wish parents would do more to ensure that they are teaching their children to be happy. Launching a happy emerging young adult is more advantageous than learning how to be happy as an older adult.

    All the best to you and your work,

    KB

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