“The world breaks everyone and afterwards some are strong in the broken places” wrote Hemingway. He is referring poetically to the fact that adversity and trauma do not break everyone. Many people grow and develop not despite adversity but because of it. “What does not kill me makes me stronger” I show the German philosopher Nietzsche put it. Or you may be familiar with Leonard Cohen’s line from “There is a crack in everything…that is how the light gets in.” Each of these people is describing the woundedness of life and how our brokenness is the essence of our humanity. The challenge of life is not to avoid adversity at all costs, but to be equal to it when it places its hand on your shoulder.
Psychological research is now supporting the intuition of these poets - that adversity makes us stronger, more robust, and fulfilled people. The erasure of adversity from life makes people weaker.
We need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps some forms of trauma to reach our highest potential. If you are honest with yourself you will realise that the experiences in life that have made you a stronger and more compassionate person are experiences you would not have wished upon yourself. If you have come through a bereavement and have re-discovered your old self, doubtless your humanity has been softened, your empathy for other people has changed, and your appreciation for life in deeper. Life may not be easier, but you will find yourself to be a better parent, a better lover, a better person because of what you have been through.
So our concept and understanding of how to live a meaningful life must integrate the inevitability and necessity of adversity as a pre-requisite to growth. Wisdom in life grows from the soil of suffering and it is achieved by overcoming it.
Naïve happiness is built on the avoidance and denial of the woundedness and brokenness of one’s life and one’s self. Perpetually seeking good feelings, and wanting to be happy all the time, is bound to fail because it actually is avoidant of life in the round. Is it not a relief sometimes to meet someone who when you ask them how they are they do not just say “Fine” but are occasionally able to admit with an element of cheerful acceptance that they are finding things a tad difficult!
If you live a somewhat stressful, worrisome, and at times hard life then this is it.
The challenge is to be able to experience that as not a reflection of your inadequacy but as a reflection of the texture of all of life. If you feel inadequate then you punish yourself for not being able to cope. If you are open to the texture of life than you don’t punish yourself for being inadequate. No, you roll with the waves. What a Grateful Acceptance of all of Life.
Now we must not be naïve about this either. We cannot romanticise adversity or suffering or trivialise it by saying, like mother used to say, “It’s good for you!” No one wants suffering, pain, loss, illness, death, etc. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the effects of genuine trauma that involves a shocking confrontation with death or some overwhelming experience such as rape or battering, is awful and damaging. However, even the most awful of experiences (see Brain Keenan’s an Evil Cradling) do not destroy the person. There is an inner resilience that has great potential to overcome, though often battered, bruised, and wounded.
My point is that adversity does not imply despair. And much adversity causes growth! Great Character is really about what you do with your pain.
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the unique point of view from which we come to see and experience the world.
The research on adversity shows that there are times in life when adversity will be essentail to the formation of character. Major adversity is unlikely to have benefits for children although the effects of once off traumas on children are less damaging than people would tend to think. Research would suggest that adversity is best handled earlier in adult life.
No one chooses adversity and no one feels that having it would make him or her any better. Yet, paradoxically, in terms of the developing fabric of human resilience and well-being it is essential to our ability to live a meaningful life. People who go through life with a silver spoon grow shallow and weak.
There will be a moment in your own life when you have the opportunity to sing your Aria. In Puccini’s La Boheme Rodolpho sings to Mimi about his life – so full of passion, loneliness, love, adversity, and sweetness it is that it cannot fail to move the heart. Wonderful opera is like this, finding exquisite beauty in the midst of heartbreak and tragedy and at these moments the lead gets to sing the Aria. At this moment, the tender beauty of life is revealed to the audience. And this is life. You need to be middle-aged or over to truly appreciate opera because by this stage you have suffered and also known the sweetness of life. You know what is beautiful because of what has been tragic.
Our ability to adapt to things in life is quite startling. Some experts have suggested that we live on what they term a pleasure treadmill, meaning that we continually adapt to improving circumstances to the point that we always return to a point of relative neutrality. In other words, when we repeatedly encounter the same pleasure-producing event, we experience less and less pleasure in it.
One of the most frequently cited studies of adaptation is an investigation reported some years ago by a bunch of psychologists at Northwestern University in Chicago. The researchers interviewed 22 winners of the Illinois State Lottery, which is larger in size to the national Lottery here in Ireland. Each of these lottery winners had won between a million and 100,000 dollars. The winners were asked to rate their past, present, and future happiness, as well as the pleasure they took in mundane everyday activities like talking to a friend, reading a newspaper, having a coffee break, etc. The researchers also interviewed a group of 58 individuals who had not won the lottery but lived in the same neighbourhood as the winners.
The results showed that the lottery winners were scarcely happier than the comparison group in terms of their present and future happiness. On top of that, lottery winners found less pleasure in everyday activities than did non-winners.
These researchers also interviewed 29 individuals who in the preceding year had suffered an accident that left one of their limbs permanently paralysed. What they found was that though their level of life-satisfaction was slightly lower than lottery winners their expected future happiness and pleasure in everyday activities were slightly higher than that of the lottery winners.
These quite extraordinary results show that people have a startling ability to adapt to life events – both good ones and bad ones. The effect of positive and negative events is never as much as you anticipate.
Why do we adapt? Wouldn’t it be nice if pleasure producing situations or positive life events always had the same sustained effect, if honeymoons could last forever, if winning the lotto guaranteed happiness, and if we only had to purchase one version of the Grand Turismo Play Station game.
It appears that by adapting to life situations, both good and bad, it protects us from being overwhelmed by life events. Our species has survived because if positive or negative events distracted us too much we would not be able to get on with the business of living and surviving. In addition, if we did not adapt to things we would lose the ability to be aware of changes in our world, which is essential to survival.
For example, if we were so overwhelmed by our distress we would not be able to take care of our off-spring – or if we were so delirious about our success we would fail to notice dangers and threats in life. So, at a very basic human level, our psychological and physical systems learn to adapt to good and bad things in life and we have a tendency to return to a base level of relative neutrality.
This of course does not alter our ability to experience a given joy or pleasure like having a warm cup of tea on a cold day, taking a swim, or watching a sunset. We keep coming back for more once a sufficient time has passed. The rule of thumb, which you know anyway, is that spreading our pleasures over time increases the satisfaction that each produces.
So the age-old adage that far away hills are always greener is shown top be true from psychological research. What far away hills do you tend to focus on in a belief that is you got what you want you would be much happier?
Don’t let yourself forget the adaptation effect and consider the wisdom in the other old saying that happiness is not doing what you like but actually liking what you do.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.