Happier People Deal Better with Hardships

It’s not avoiding problems that matters, but how we handle them.

By SHARE

The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.

Some people are much more resilient than others. They bounce back quickly from a hard day. They mourn but adjust to even a calamitous setback, such as the death of a loved one or a natural disaster. The questions of why this is so and whether people can learn how to better deal with life's slings and arrows are easy to pose but hard to answer.

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George Bonanno, a psychologist at Columbia University, has spent his career studying how people respond to adversity, particularly how they grieve over the death of a spouse or other loved one. "There's a lot to be learned from how well we cope with adversities," he says. "Human beings can cope pretty well with really bad things."

Bonanno says a couple of strong research trends are emerging that speak to why some people fare better than others. One of them is that it's not only OK to be happy when you're sad; it's therapeutic. Positive emotion, even the momentary experience of feeling joy or happiness, can be part of the coping and recovery process for people reeling from a traumatic event.

"People are able to experience joy and happiness even when the crappiest things are happening," he says. "It's a good thing to know that that's possible, or even permissible" when you're grieving or in emotional pain. "Laugh as much as you can."

A second concept Bonanno and others have researched is the notion that there is no single "best" way to respond to adversity. Those with great resilience adjust their responses, often unknowingly, to their specific situation. They exhibit great situational flexibility.

"We're finding that people who deal best with adversity are people who have flexible responses," he says. "They have multiple coping strategies, which is part of what we think of as mental health."

This flexibility may mean expressing emotion as part of a grieving and recovery process, or even as a way of confronting a difficult challenge. "We normally don't think of anger as being something good, but it can be a very helpful thing."

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Flexibility can also mean suppressing emotion. This may be the best way to handle an immediate emergency or, to cite an extreme example, deal with a battlefield attack. Bonanno calls it "coping ugly." "Some situations are dire and you just have to get through them," he says.

It is not clear how or even whether people can train themselves to become more flexible in dealing with serious life events. Bonanno says there are three traits of resilient people:

1. They are able to "read" situations well and figure out an appropriate response.

2. They have a repertoire of various coping behaviors and can select one tailored to a specific situation.

3. They can shift gears, or recalibrate themselves, in response to the specifics of an adverse event or situation.

Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California at Irvine, says not only is there no single way people respond to negative life events, but the same person may respond differently at different times in his or her life.

It also turns out that experiencing some adversity strengthens coping skills and can produce an "inoculation" effect. People who have not experienced serious problems in their lives may be emotionally devastated when bad things finally happen to them. Likewise, she says, people who have had too hard a time are not able to cope well, either.

"I met a woman years ago whose son had won every race he entered as a young boy," Silver says by way of illustration. "He was very gifted and just never lost at anything. When he was about 30, he had something bad happen to him, and he completely fell apart. His mother told me that she wished at some point that he had come in second in a race. She was basically saying that he had never learned to deal with adversity, and had not developed the requisite social and coping skills."