❝To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.❞ -Frederich Nietzche
Imagine working on the Biosphere 2 project in the early 1990s, studying life on Earth. You are puzzled by the trees. The trees grew faster inside Biosphere 2 than outside, which is fascinating in and of itself. What's more interesting, though, is that these faster-growing trees would fall over before they could mature. Biosphere 2 trees were, in effect, floppy trees.
After investigating this phenomenon, you realize that trees became floppy because they didn't experience enough stress. There was no wind. Wind knocks a tree around and, if the wind is strong enough, causes branches to fall and even the entire tree. One would think that getting rid of the wind, i.e., reducing the stress that they experiences, would make the tree better off. In fact, they discovered the opposite. They discovered that without stress, the tree could not develop strength.
It's the same for us as humans.
A world without problems would be boring. Imagine a book or a movie where nothing bad ever happened and everybody was always in a good mood. I'm assuming you would not read that book or watch that movie. Problems and challenges make life interesting. I grew up with a video game called Super Mario Brothers, which is a game where you play a plumber who tries to rescue a princess from a turtle dragon (I can't make this up). In this game, you try to get your character from the left side of the world to the right side of the world while avoiding obstacles like holes in the ground and enemies that are trying to kill you. If you successfully got to the right side of the level, you beat the level, and it felt great. You also earned the right to go on to the next level, which is even more difficult. The process of overcoming the challenges made it so satisfying to finish the level. Overcoming setbacks is a source of joy.
Life is a never-ending series of problems that need our attention, but that's okay because it is a source of joy. We can take this a step further, though, by saying that we not only get joy from overcoming adversity but also need it to grow and learn. You were not very good when you first tried to walk. I imagine you fell down repeatedly, sometimes resulting in physical pain. After falling down over and over, you did not give up and just assume walking wasn't for you. You needed to fall down in order to know what worked and what didn't work. Eventually, you got so good at walking that you learned how to do it faster and faster until you learned how to jump in between steps. You learned how to run but needed to fall while learning how to walk first.
There will always be problems, so it makes little sense to be surprised by the appearance of the next one. We can learn to use our pain as a source of education that we can learn from. We can learn to be more resilient by being more aware of what we notice, understanding the narratives that dictate our actions, and choosing appropriate actions.
WHAT YOU NOTICE
There's an old saying that your life is what you pay attention to. But what do you pay attention to? Throughout the course of a day, there are many good things going on in your life, just as there are many bad things that may happen to you. My guess is that as you reflect on your day yesterday, you can bring to mind many bad things that happened, but it will take longer for you to remember the good things that happened. This is because we have a negativity bias.
Our negativity bias simply says we are more likely to pay attention to the bad stuff around us than the good stuff. We'll notice the bad sooner, remember it longer, and more easily spot it. It's not just some form of pessimism. This is deeply encoded in our genes. If you trace your family tree back far enough, you'll find people who needed to pay more attention to threats than opportunities because their survival depended on it. If I saw a stick but thought it was a snake, I may run away. If I run away, the worst thing that happens to me is I get a little bit embarrassed, but I live until tomorrow to be embarrassed again. But if I see a snake but think it's a stick, it's game over. We had to pay more attention to the threats, and that bias remains with us today.
There is an antidote to our negativity bias, but it takes practice. Practicing gratitude can be a great way to counter our negativity bias. When we practice gratitude, we simply pay more attention to everything that is going well for us. At first, this may be difficult, but eventually, it can become second nature. Similarly, savoring is a great way to pay more attention to all the good going on around us. When we savor, we pay special attention to something we're grateful for while experiencing it.
WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU NOTICE
Once we notice something, we run it through the filter of our experience to see what we think about it. We want to know if it's good or bad, right or wrong, favorable or unfavorable. The filter of our experience is our interpretation of what has just happened, and our reactions are based on this interpretation. This idea is not new. Ancient philosophers have been saying it is for years. Epictetus has said that, "People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them," and, "It is not things themselves that trouble people, but their opinion about things." Marcus Aurelius has said, "If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment." It's not just Stoic philosophers that have come to this idea. William Shakespeare in Hamlet wrote, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
The idea that it's not the external stuff that happens but rather our interpretation of that stuff is deeply woven into us. This is where our personal values lie. This is where we have our Money Scripts. Any narrative or story we tell ourselves lies between external events in our reactions. Psychologists call these interpretations appraisals.
Two people can have the same thing happen to them; one may appraise it as an awful event, and another might not even notice it. For example, one person might become irate after getting cut off in traffic, while another may not even be bothered by it.
We do have the ability to slow down our thinking process. This can be done at first by journaling and, with practice, can become second nature. Slowing down our thinking process is like performing an autopsy on what just happened. You'll first notice your reaction. You either did something or felt something. Then you can ask yourself what the trigger was. What external event happened just before you did or felt the way you did? The challenging part is to answer the question, Why? Why did that external event lead you to feel that way? Why did that event lead you to do something? What's the story you told yourself?
By investigating the nature of your thought process, you can slow down and make a more mindful choice about what to do next. You can choose to respond instead of react.
WHAT YOU DO ABOUT IT
For many of us, much of our life is on autopilot. We float around from circumstance to circumstance, letting life happen to us without really understanding why we're doing what we're doing. When an adverse event happens, and we react with our default mode, we're more likely to put ourselves in a situation where we will regret our actions.
When adversity strikes, we can choose how to cope with the situation. By slowing down our thinking process and understanding the stories we tell ourselves about that adversity, we can choose a coping style that will be more likely to not only get through the adversity but to learn from it and grow.
When it comes to what we intend to do about what's happened to us, it's helpful to think in terms of what we can control and what we do. Our coping styles can be helpful or unhelpful (psychologists call these adaptive or maladaptive coping styles). Unhelpful coping styles are behaviors and actions that aren't likely to help us in the long run. For example, people are generally uncomfortable with uncertainty and a lack of control. Attempting to control situations that are out of your control would be considered a maladaptive coping style. Alternatively, others become overly stressed and give up. In this case, there are things in their control that they are choosing not to do. Not doing things that you can do is another maladaptive coping style.
Helpful, or adaptive coping styles are those that are more likely to get you through adversity and to help you learn and become more resilient. The most obvious adaptive coping style is to do things that are within your control. For example, can you reach out to friends or family in your time of need? Can you hire a professional trained in the area where you are experiencing adversity? What small step can you take when it feels daunting?
Sometimes you can't control what's happening. Another adaptive coping style that feels uncomfortable for many is to surrender and let go of things that are out of your control.
By slowing down, you can choose to use an adaptive coping style. You can learn to see this adversity in a bigger context. You'll begin to ask yourself how to take advantage of this adversity. You'll ask yourself how you can tell yourself in five years that it's the best thing that's happened to you. If you lose, don't lose the lesson.
Becoming more resilient comes down to understanding what you see, what you think about what you see, and what you do about it. Broadening our field of vision to notice more of the good that's all around us can help us become more resilient and optimistic. Slowing down our thinking process to understand and rescript our narratives can change how we interpret adversity. Finally, we can mindfully choose an appropriate actions to help steer us through adversity.
You get one life; live intentionally.
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References and Influences
Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What
Boniwell, Ilona: Positive Psychology in a Nutshell
Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks
Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote
Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness
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Emmons, Robert: Gratitude Works!
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Wikipedia: Biosphere 2
Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.