Setbacks force a fundamental collision of two realities: that which we would like to maintain (our subjective reality) and that which is actually occurring (the objective reality). According to psychologist Stephen Joseph, author of What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth, a setback, or traumatic experience, causes a person’s life story to rupture and shatters assumptions about ourselves, others, and the world. Setbacks, by their very nature, violate our beliefs about the way things are supposed to happen. What results are two separate experiences that are in contradiction. On the one hand, we want to believe that the world is safe, people are trustworthy, and we are worthy, yet being rejected, losing a loved one, and being in an unexpected accident all contradict these beliefs (Joseph, 2011).
Especially when setbacks are of the magnitude that we cannot ignore—being uncontrollable, life threatening, and irreversible—they force an upheaval of our very fundamental beliefs about the world, who we are, and how we make sense of our daily lives. This painful upheaval, and the shattering of what was, leads to the reconsideration of existing beliefs and plants the seeds for a new perspective on what really matters.
Sara had been involved in a mass shooting in which she lost her best friend and her husband’s best friend. While the theater occupants directly in front and behind her had been killed, in a fortuitous twist of fate, she and her husband had been spared. Sara had never imagined being shot at, let alone losing those close to her in such a violent way. The events simply violated everything she knew of the world. She questioned the shooter’s motives and wondered what would lead a person to massacre almost an entire theater full of people. And on a very fundamental level, Sara questioned her deeply held belief that the world is safe. Yet struggling with hyper-vigilance and almost nightly flashbacks, she also realized that she’d taken many things for granted. She hadn’t appreciated what she had until it was almost lost. Focusing on her career, making money, and proving herself, she’d “made many selfish decisions” and now realized that the way she had been living her life had not led to happiness. Sara thought the money and esteem meant happiness, but in hindsight, she realized she had been stressed “almost all the time.” As Sara looked back, she now knew she’d made a fundamental miscalculation about her happiness. And after the shooting, her priorities changed. She traded her position at a large department store to open her own store, never worked past five o’clock, and began volunteering at a crisis center. In her words, “money can’t replace people, and I can see that now.”
And this might just be what is necessary. According to Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi, authors of The Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth: Research and Practice, when we face assumptions about life that are in contradiction to our experience and cannot be integrated into our understanding, we are forced to let them go (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2006). As our assumptive world unravels, we also reconsider our goals, hopes, wishes, and dreams and come to terms with our miscalculations: that perhaps the path we were on was not actually leading to happiness. And then we make critical adaptations. Sometimes these adaptations are the physical kind, like the sponsored athlete who becomes injured and simply “doesn’t make the cut” must now find a new path, and sometimes they involve relationships, where after a loss we find ourselves valuing those close to us on a much deeper level. But all adaptations involve a critical reconsideration of our values and beliefs and a reconciliation of just where we have gone wrong—where we have miscalculated our lives.
Although painful, the shattering of existing beliefs and assumptions, complete with the “letting go” of long-held beliefs, goals, and matters of importance, is a crucial component of growth of any kind, but it is also instrumental to understanding what really matters. Perhaps this is due to what Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling On Happiness, describes as our uncanny ability to “manufacture happiness,” or perhaps without first disabling beliefs and approaches that do not work—whether it is because they are outdated in the economic market, miscalculate political interests, or cannot be integrated into our belief system—the critical process of adaptation cannot occur. And the result is not just adaptation; it’s a profound connection to what really matters, and it’s a profound improvement in happiness.
Making his point, Gilbert points to several examples of people who have gone through what most of us would consider horrific events—being wrongly imprisoned for years, experiencing financial devastation, and losing a limb—yet describe themselves as happier after. While perhaps these people have “found a way” to make the best of dramatically changed circumstances, as Gilbert suggests, they may have also made the critical adaptations of growth—realizing just where they made errors in predicting happiness and making adjustments to reflect the changing landscape of their lives. Yet the result was profound and clear: they describe themselves as happier.
In evolution, we might call it culling (cutting out the traits that do not work and refining the species to promote survival), and on an individual level, we might call it upheaval (the unwinding of a belief system that no longer fits reality in service of new meanings and beliefs that reflect the changed landscape). And while it may lead to tremendous uncertainty as the assumptive world upon which we have come to depend is shattered, the critical choices we make are the foreground of adaptation — and the foreground of happiness.