top of page
MM Logo Update Outline.png

Happiness and Difficulty

living a happy life includes accepting difficult times

❝Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.❞ -Viktor Frankl

I'm 30 years old, and I just found a classic Nintendo at a garage sale. It comes with Super Mario brothers, so I'm excited to hook it up and play. I haven't played this game for well over a decade.

If you're not familiar with Super Mario Brothers, it's a video game about a plumber who's on a quest to rescue a princess from a turtle.

In each level, you start at the left side of the world and try to move to the right side to get to the castle. Getting to the castle allows you to get to the next level. Along the way, you have to avoid falling into holes in the ground. You also have to avoid turtles, mushrooms, and carnivorous plants that are trying to kill you. As you move up to higher levels, the game becomes more challenging.

Imagine a variation on this game. Imagine a game where you simply ran your character from the left side of the world to the right side of the world to get to the castle with nothing in the way. All you did was hold the "right" button on the controller until you got there.

That would be very boring, and you wouldn't play that game. A game without challenges is a game that you wouldn't play.

We can't get better unless we get practice - it makes us resilient


If we went out and asked 100 people to describe what it meant to be happy, nearly all of them would describe some version of joy, pleasure, laughter, and fun.

If we further ask these people to describe the relationship between difficult times and happiness, almost all would describe them as opposites.

Many people believe happiness means not feeling bad

It seems there is a widespread notion that a happy life consists of never feeling negative emotions or even a state of neutrality. To live a happy life, society says, is to live a life full of joy and nothing else.

This is incorrect; Nothing more than a myth.

it's a myth that happy people don't feel bad


To live a happy life is to live a life where you can cultivate positive emotions and are equipped to handle negative emotions when they come. But that's only part of the story. It's possible to imagine somebody who has a life full of positive emotion but his lacking meaning and purpose in their life.

To live a meaningful life is to live a life that has a sense of purpose, coherence, and feels important. The moments in our lives that make for a meaningful existence aren't always going to be full of positive emotion. However, they make for a meaningful life in the context of how they fit into our life story. We can be happy with our lives as we look back on the challenges and struggles that have led to our meaning in life.

That is to say that struggles and problems that we can overcome are necessary for a meaningful life, and a meaningful life is one in which we can be happy.

struggle is a benefit if it's for a greater purpose


Imagine for a moment a world in which nobody has any challenges or struggles. There are no setbacks, no emergencies, and no issues. Does this sound like the world in which you would want to live?

This would be analogous to playing a video game with no challenges. It would be boring and not worth playing. Not to mention, if everyone was full of joy all the time, then we would quickly become used to that as our baseline level of expectation. We would adapt so that it wouldn't feel like an amazing paradise. In fact, we would become hypersensitive to minor differences and tiny setbacks.

Additionally, we wouldn't ever learn. We wouldn't grow. We learn more from failure than we do from success, but there would be nothing to learn from if we never failed. There would be no reason to learn.

Having setbacks and struggles in life helps us build our resiliency muscle. You can think of resiliency as a part of your psychological immune system. A physical immune system doesn't prevent you from getting sick. Instead, it means you'll be sick less often, and when you do get sick, you'll be able to get healthy quicker. In the same way, a psychological immune system doesn't mean that you won't experience setbacks or negative emotions. It just means that you'll experience fewer of them, and when you do, you'll be able to recover faster.

You don't get practice at building resiliency if everything goes in your favor.

resilience is the ability to bounce back


Struggles, negative emotions, and other less-than-ideal situations are a part of life. It's a part of what it means to be a human. Wishing otherwise is a source of suffering because we will never meet that expectation. Even the happiest of people experience negative emotions, including the Dalai Lama.

Because negative emotions and other negative states are part of life, it pays to accept them into our lives. One way to do this is simply recognizing that negative events are a part of life, and life is a series of challenges and struggles. Once you know that, then you know it makes no sense to be surprised when the next negative situation presents itself.

There are several ways you can try to deal with challenges, struggles, and setbacks. One way is to remind yourself that whatever challenge just presented itself is now in the past and can't be changed. Your choice now going forward is to either complain about this thing that happened or figure out the best way to deal with what just happened. The old cliche is that you don't have to cry over spilled milk. Once the milk is spilled, the best thing to do is clean it up and possibly learn why it spilled.

Another way to deal with challenges and setbacks is, at the moment they happen, to imagine that the universe, God, or life, in general, is challenging you and doesn't give you challenges that you can't handle. Reframing it this way, most of the little things that irritate you you'll find are quite insignificant.

Another way is to imagine the story that Future You will be able to tell about this event. To make this connection, think about your proudest story. Your proudest story is often linked to struggle, which is why it's your proudest story. Once you've made the connection between struggle and pride, then you can view your current struggle in that context of the bigger picture.

By accepting life, you'll notice that negative experiences come and go. We don't need to push them away or try to avoid them. They go away on their own.

negative experiences come and go like a wave


We all have a baseline level of happiness. Some people won the genetic lottery and are just happier people in general. For example, if you're familiar with Snow White and the seven dwarfs, Grumpy will never become as happy as Happy.

But our baseline makes up only about half of our potential happiness. Many people think that the circumstances of our lives dictate how happy we are. But circumstances only make up about 10% of our happiness. This is related to the fact that we very quickly get used to things. Lottery winners are happy for a short time, and then it wears off, and they get used to their new circumstances. People who lose their ability to walk get very sad for some time, and then the sadness wears off, and they get used to their new circumstances. Circumstances include our environment and our emotions. Even if a very challenging setback happens, which makes us feel very sad, that makes up only 10% of our happiness.

The other 40% is in our control. Things that are in our control include how involved we are with others. Social connection is a primary source of happiness. Having a healthy relationship with ourselves is in our control. Getting enough rest and taking care of ourselves will contribute to our long-term well-being. Being mindful and pursuing our purpose is in our control and contributes to our happiness. Being able to use our minds is a significant contributor to our happiness. So having interesting problems to solve and being able to satisfy our curiosity and learn new things will make us happy.

happiness includes three components

Living a happier life is not about what is happening to you, and it does not mean that you will be free from struggle or challenge. It means that you can overcome struggles and setbacks, learn from your experience, and continue doing things that will make you happier.

Ultimately, being happy and living a happy life is about having satisfaction in your life and satisfaction with your life.

You get one life; live intentionally.

With gratitude,


If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Being Happy

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Even Happier

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier, No Matter What

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happiness Studies

Burkeman, Oliver: Four Thousand Weeks

Burkeman, Oliver: The Antidote

Dalai Lama & Howard Cutler: The Art of Happiness

Gilbert, Daniel: Stumbling on Happiness

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here

Hanson, Rick: Hardwiring Happiness

Hanson, Rick & Forrest Hanson: Resilient

Harris, Dan: 10% Happier

Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life

Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face

Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge

Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked

Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor

Seligman, Martin: Authentic Happiness

Seligman, Martin: Flourish

Vos, Joel: Meaning in Life

Whelan, Christine: The Big Picture

Yalom, Irvin: Staring at the Sun

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.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


Join over 1,950 other subscribers.

No Spam - Just new articles sent to you every Thursday.

Popular Articles

bottom of page