It’s hard to talk about happiness without acknowledging that we are not all dealt the same stack of cards and life events can sometimes seriously interrupt our happiness attempts. Interpretations do matter and can mean the difference between thinking of imprisonment as, well, imprisonment, and a “glorious experience” — as described by Morese Bickham who spent 37 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Yet interpretations may only scratch the surface of our ability to adapt to even the most horrific circumstances. Consider the twin tower attacks of September 11, 2001.
While you might think that people who were directly affected by such a disaster would suffer some serious mental fallout. However, as Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and well recognized as the father of positive psychology uncovered, gratitude levels actually increased after September 11, 2001 (Seligman, 2011).
While this may sound hard to believe, other studies have shown similar results.
In early 2008, Kang Lee, a distinguished professor at the University of Toronto, Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, Hong Li and Yiyuan Li from Liaoning Normal University were in Sichuan, China, were working on a study on empathy and altruism among children and had completed the first portion of it. Then, in May 2008, an earthquake struck the region and killed 87,000 people.
The team immediately decided to change the course of their study and explore what the experience of a disaster might mean to the children’s concern for others.
In the study, the team tested children’s altruism by having them individually pick 10 favorite stickers from a set of 100. Afterward, they were told some of their classmates were not included in the test and asked if they would give up some of the stickers for them to enjoy. Without the researcher watching, children would put stickers into an envelope and seal it if they wanted to share. The amount of stickers they chose to give up was determined to be a measure of altruism. The children also were given a standard test of empathy, which gauged their reactions to seeing animated vignettes of people who are injured.
Tested one month after the disaster, the children’s willingness to give to others had nearly tripled (Jackman, et. al., 2013).
“The study provides the first evidence to suggest that experiencing a natural disaster affects children’s altruistic giving significantly” (Li, 2015).
Another study showed a separate effect of resilience – in particular, on our levels of happiness.
Analyzing the responses of 254 students from the Faculty of Psychology, researchers at the Basic Psychology Unit at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona evaluated their life-satisfaction scores and levels of resilience to see if there was a connection. The question they were asking was: Are higher levels of resilience associated with greater life satisfaction?
In fact they were. The research data showed that students who were more resilient – 20% of those surveyed – were more satisfied with their lives and were also those who believe they have control over their emotions and their state of mind. Resilience, the researchers concluded, therefore, has a positive prediction effect on the level of satisfaction with one’s life (Limonero, et. al., 2016).
“Some of the characteristics of being resilient can be worked on and improved, such as self-esteem and being able to regulate one’s emotions. Learning these techniques can offer people the resources needed to help them adapt and improve their quality of life” (Limonero, 2016).
Studies like this most likely make perfect sense to Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist, lecturer at Stanford University, and author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You and How To Get Good At It, who contends that not only is stress good for us, but the difference between those who are enriched by stress and those who seem debilitated by it is precisely what they believe about stress. For McGonigal, the key to using stress to our advantage lies in our mindset: when we believe stress is growth enhancing, our body responds adaptively, and we are not held hostage by an onslaught of stress chemicals – rather we are fueled by them (McGonigal, 2015).
While we don’t always know just what will lead to happiness, our beliefs and expectations about happiness matter greatly. And when we look for opportunities for gratitude – even in the case of adversity – we don’t just find more gratitude, but more happiness.
Photo by Shermeee