Happier People Deal Better with Hardships

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

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Maren Westphal worked on research that helped form the basis for Bonnano's conclusions about resilience and flexibility. She now is an assistant professor of psychology at Arcadia University. "There is one big message coming out" of the research, she says, "and it's that resilience is not about one factor or one dominant personal trait, but that many different variables contribute to resilience. The other piece about resilience is that it is a process, an outcome that unfolds over time."

While it is hard to predict which people will deal well with adversity, some variables have emerged, Westphal says. One negative factor is excessively dwelling on a problem or loss. "People who ruminate more do worse," she says. "They keep on thinking and processing about adverse things that happen to them." Women generally ruminate more on events than men.

Another negative factor is a person's degree of neuroticism. Viewing events negatively all the time makes it harder to respond to a serious adversity in a healthy, flexible manner.

[See How to Find Happiness on Social Networks.]

On the positive side, Westphal says, people with a high sense of their own skills and self-worth tend to fare well. Whether or not you really are capable doesn't matter so much as that you think you are capable, she says. Having this sense of "feeling up to it" is very healthful. So is self-enhancement—inflating your own worth to deal with adversity. "People who perceive themselves in more flattering ways show better adjustments," Westphal says, even if their attitude turns off people in their social network.

Not surprisingly, the psychology of a flexible response to adversity is mirrored by research about how our brains deal with stress. In evolutionary terms, humans' response to adversity can be linked back to the basic survival instincts of our earliest ancestors. The most successful early humans tended to be the ones who recognized and responded quickly to physical threats. If they hadn't, of course, they would not have survived and passed on these traits to others. These responses triggered physical changes and also fired up parts of the brain that regulated the production of body chemicals related to stress.

Today's threats still include physical dangers, of course, but are more likely to center on emotional stresses. The brain still perceives adverse events as a threat, however, and springs into action. Up to a point, this is a good thing, notes Richard Davidson, a brain researcher at the University of Wisconsin. However, some people's brains respond too well or for too extended a period of time.

"This can lead to deleterious consequences," says Davidson, who is also a professor of psychology and psychiatry. "It can lead to the production of stress hormones that exceed what is required to deal with a stressful situation." In his research using brain scans, Davidson has shown that resilient people's brains are particularly effective at regulating these types of "fight or flight" reflexes. It's their brain's flexibility that drives their behavioral flexibility.

The bottom line: Everyone suffers losses and serious reversals during their lives. Trying to avoid them would not be an effective strategy even if that was possible. Instead, the research suggests we should recognize that bad things are part of life. Experts recommend trying to learn from past problems without letting them overwhelm you. And as with so many other life events, a strong social network can offer an essential support system.