Why Some People Get Through Hard Times Better Than Others

The Posttraumatic Growth Research That Helps People Be Resilient

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Happiness doesn’t come to you. It takes deliberate work each day to create a story you want to live in. Soon that work is a habit, and you’ve created a space for happiness to stick around.

—Lucille Zimmerman

There is a well-supported subcategory of positive psychology researched by Barbara Fredrickson called the Broaden-and-Build theory. I’ll let Wikipedia describe it:

"The broaden-and-build theory suggests that positive emotions (enjoyment/happiness/joy, and perhaps interest/anticipation) broaden one’s awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened behavioral repertoire builds skills and resources. For example, curiosity about a landscape becomes valuable navigational knowledge; pleasant interactions with a stranger become a supportive friendship; aimless physical play becomes exercise and physical excellence. Interestingly, negative emotions serve a purpose as well; however, they prompt narrow, immediate survival-oriented behaviors. For example, the negative emotion of anxiety leads to the specific fight-or-flight response for immediate survival. Positive emotions do not have any immediate survival value, because they take one’s mind off immediate needs and stressors. However, over time, the skills and resources built by broadened behavior enhance survival. Research has shown that individuals who increase the amount of positive emotions that they experience are better able to find positive meaning in their negative circumstances."

Recently, I was at the warm therapy pool and saw afriend of mine from church. While playing with our water weights, we talked about a car accident she had experienced a year ago when a teenage driver plowed into her. The last fourteen months had included massive pain and rehabilitation as well as a stack of medical bills, yet my friend had a can-do attitude and a pleasant look on her face. This made it easy for me to enjoy being around her. We bounced, laughed, and talked. If she hadn’t been pleasant—and that would have been expected—I may have found our conversation to be taxing and may have shortened our time together. If numerous people avoided her over time, it’s likely her demeanor, and subsequently her healing, would have been negatively impacted. She might have felt sad and stayed at home rather than going to the pool to connect with others and exercise. My point is not to say people can’t be sad or angry, but to show how the ability to create positive coping strategies has an exponential affect.

I logged onto my Facebook page and read a friend’s post: “I woke up extremely snarky. I'm not a big fan of this state of mind. Worship music, coffee, some time with Jesus, coffee, the Word, and coffee will turn me around.” She is doing exactly what Fredrickson’s theory describes. Compare the woman at the pool and my friend’s reaction to the person who never relents from telling you her latest hardship or crises. Sadly, Eeyores alienate others and then find themselves lonely and without the resources they so desperately need.

Positive emotions in the elderly protect against physical debility in old age and are also associated with larger social rewards. These include higher odds of marriage and lower odds of divorce, more friends, stronger social support, richer social interactions, superior work outcomes (productivity, higher quality of work, higher income), and more activity, energy, and flow. Happy people are more likely to evidence greater self-control and self-regulatory and coping abilities and live longer. They tend to be more cooperative, social, charitable, and others-centered. 

People may falsely believe that life going well will give them the opportunity to be happy. What they don’t understand is that their deliberate creation of a positive mood makes life go well, albeit not problem-free. Coping strategies related to the occurrence and maintenance of positive emotions (positive reappraisal, problem-focused coping, infusing ordinary events with positive meaning) helps buffer stress and depressed moods. These strategies help people emerge from crises with new coping skills, closer relationships, and a richer appreciation for life. Positive emotions amid adversity may provide the necessary psychological rest to help buffer against stress, replenish, and restore further coping efforts.

It seems crazy to talk about inviting fun and laughter back into our lives if we have experienced horrendous trauma, but it is essential. Recent research tells us that positive emotions such as joy, amusement, contentment, and serenity seem to speed recovery as “undoers” of negative emotion and associated arousal within the nervous system. As a Licensed Professional Counselor, I might use this research to focus on and amplify the times when fun, laughter, contentment, or serenity was present in my client’s life. For example, one of my current clients has a hard time loving herself. At our last appointment, I pointed out the way she used a silly photo and funny words to create connection with her sons. I pointed out how thoughtful she was to her mother-in-law. In spite of her difficult childhood, my client is a sensitive and compassionate person. I think of resilience as a practice or activity rather than a quality. I try to implement it into my daily life and teach it to my clients.

Positive emotions restore our body’s physiological activation to levels prior to the psychological arousal associated with stress responses (fight, flight, or freeze), and reset psychological openness to a broader range of possible actions. Other research has found that people who experience positive emotion amid bereavement are more likely to develop long-term plans and goals, and more likely to find positive meaning in their distress. (Tugade, 2004) 

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, shared a letter on Facebook a month after her husband’s death from a treadmill accident: “I have lived thirty years in these thirty days,” she wrote. “I am thirty years sadder,” but she also shared that she felt “thirty years wiser.” In her 2,000-word essay, she described how her understanding of motherhood has been redefined as she grieves alongside her children, and how her relationship with her own mother has deepened. She wrote about it in Option B, the book she and psychologist Adam Grant wrote. (Sandberg, 2017)

Evidence shows that the broaden-and-build theory produces patterns of thought that are unusual, flexible, creative, integrative, open to information, and efficient. In simple words: The more you use positive, flexible, creative thoughts and behaviors, the more of them you will have access to when negative times come! (Fredrickson B., 2011) The arsenal of personal resources produced by positive emotions can be drawn on in times of need and used to plan for future outcomes, which may be valuable in facilitating healthy behavioral practices.

Resilience is defined as flexibility in response to changing situational demands and the ability to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Trait-resilient people experience positive emotions even during stressful events, which may explain their ability to rebound successfully despite adversity. This morning, for example, someone who didn’t like my post on Facebook responded angrily. It felt harsh. If this had happened ten years ago, I might have reacted by lashing out, deleting my post, or deleting my account altogether. Since I see many people saying they are afraid to share their views, and since I’ve struggled for so long to find my voice, I tried to remain positive. I gently shared my belief, backed up by research, and apologized for offending her. I told her it was important for everyone to be able to express his or her views as long as they did so respectfully. I think my reaction is an example of resilience. Resilient people not only cultivate positive emotions in themselves, but are also skilled at eliciting positive emotions in others. These benefits can accrue and accumulate. The relations between positive emotions and broad-minded coping became stronger, creating an upward spiral toward enhanced well-being.

Often, it’s hard to stay positive. Sometimes the ability to put ourselves out there, reassess, and choose good coping skills isn’t present. Sometimes it’s okay to let despair be a tool we use, if it doesn’t become our permanent home.My daughter and I rarely have an argument, but one morning we had a doozy. I was barely awake, hadn’t had my coffee, and was trying to say goodbye to my husband when the phone rang. My daughter needed to talk about something that had upset her. What resulted was a series of text messages with both of us saying things we didn’t mean. We were both in emotional pain. I’m not sure what went on inside her mind, but mine succumbed to despair. I thought, “Fine, I’m a bad mom. I wasn’t there when she needed me. I can’t get it right.” I sent my daughter a note of apology and went to the swimming pool to swim laps for thirty minutes. When I got home, I learned my husband had talked to her for a long time. She just needed to be heard. A few hours later, we apologized to each other.

Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading scientific experts on gratitude, tells us to remember the bad. He says trials and suffering can refine and deepen gratefulness if we allow them to teach us not to take things for granted. "Crisis can make us more grateful, but research says gratitude also helps us cope with crisis. Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. Thereis scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether it’s minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals. The contrast between suffering and redemption serves as the basis for one of my tips for practicing gratitude: remember the bad.

It works this way: Think of the worst times in your life, your sorrows, your losses, your sadness. Then remember you are here, able to remember them, that you made it through the worst times of your life, you got through the traumas and the trials, you endured the temptation, you survived the bad relationship, and you’re making your way out of the dark. Remember the bad things, then assess where you are now.

This process of remembering how difficult life used to be and how far we have come sets up an explicit contrast that is fertile ground for gratefulness. Our minds think in terms of counterfactuals: mental comparisons we make between the way things are and how things might have been different. Contrasting the present with negative times in the past can make us feel happier (or at least less unhappy), and enhance our overall sense of well-being. This opens the door to coping gratefully."

Emmons encourages this exercise: "Think about one ofthe unhappiest events you have experienced. How often do you find yourself thinking about this event today? Does the contrast with the present make you feel grateful andpleased? Do you realize your current life situation is not as bad as it could be? Try to realize and appreciate how much better life is now. The point is not to ignore or forget the past, but to develop a fruitful frame of reference in the present from which to view experiences and events." (Emmons, 2013)

We know that gratitude enhances happiness, but why? Gratitude maximizes happiness in multiple ways becauseit helps us reframe memories of unpleasant events in away that decreases their unpleasant emotional impacts. This implies that grateful coping entails looking for positive consequences of negative events. For example; grateful coping might involve seeing how a stressful event has shaped who we are today and has prompted us to reevaluate what is truly important in life.

To say that gratitude is a helpful strategy to handle hurt feelings does not mean that we should try to ignore or deny suffering and pain. The field of positive psychology has at times been criticized for failing to acknowledge the value of negative emotions. Barbara Held of Bowdoin College in Maine, for example, argues that positive psychology has been too negative about negativity and too positive about positivity. (Emmons, 2013) To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “One of the hardest things to decide during a dark night is whether to surrender or resist. The choice often comes down to what you believe about God and how God acts, which means that every dark night of the soul involves wrestling with belief.” (Brown, B. 2015)

Telling people simply to buck up, count their blessings,and remember how much they have to be grateful for can certainly do harm. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. Gratitude is not a form of superficial “happiology.” Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. Posttraumatic growth means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.

In a study conducted at Eastern Washington University, participants were randomly assigned to one of three writing groups that would recall and report on an unpleasant open memory; a loss, a betrayal, victimization, or some other personally upsetting experience. The first group wrote for twenty minutes on issues that were irrelevant to their open memories. The second wrote about their experiences pertaining to their open memories. Researchers asked the third group to focus on the positive aspects of their difficult experiences and discover what about them might now make them feel grateful. (Emmons, 2013)

Results showed that the third group demonstrated more closure and less unpleasant emotional impact than participants who only wrote about the experience without being prompted to see ways it might be redeemed with gratitude. Participants were never told not to think about the negative aspects of the experience or to deny or ignore the pain. Moreover, participants who found reasons to be grateful demonstrated fewer intrusive memories, such as wondering why it happened, whether it could have been prevented, or if they believed they caused it to happen. Thinking gratefully, this study showed, can help heal troubling memories and, in a sense, redeem them—a result echoed in many other studies.

Emmons asked people with debilitating physical illnesses to compose narratives concerning times when they felt a deep sense of gratitude to someone or for something.He asked them to let themselves recreate their experiences in their minds so that they could feel the emotions as if they had transported themselves back in time to the event itself. He also had them reflect on what they felt inthose situations and how they expressed those feelings. In the face of progressive diseases, people often find life extremely challenging, painful, and frustrating. 

Emmons wondered whether it would even be possible for these people struggling with debilitating illnesses to find anything to be grateful about. For many of them, life revolved around visits to pain clinics and pharmacies. Emmons says he would not have been at all surprised if resentment over- shadowed gratefulness.

  1. As it turned out, most respondents had trouble settling on specific instances—they simply had so much in their lives that they were grateful for. Emmons was struck by the profound depth of feeling that they conveyed in their essays and by the apparent life-transforming power of gratitude in many feeling.
  2. Gratitude for gifts that others easily overlook most can be the most powerful and frequent form of thankfulness.
  3. Gratitude can be chosen despite one’s situation or circumstances.

Emmons was struck by the redemptive twists that occurred in nearly half of these narratives: out of something bad (suffering, adversity, affliction) came something good (new life or new opportunities) for which the respondents felt profoundly grateful. (Emmons, 2013)

Some argue that it’s impossible to be grateful amid suffering. When life is going well, when there’s abundance, then sure, we can be grateful. But what about when we’re facing hard times? Gratitude is not only possible in those circumstances, it’s also vital to helping us get through them. When faced with adversity, gratitude helps us see the big picture and not feel overwhelmed by the setbacks we’re facing in the moment. The attitude of gratitude can motivate us to tackle the challenges before us. Without a doubt, it can be hard to take this grateful perspective, but research suggests it is possible and worth it.

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Brown, B. (2015) Learning to Walk in the Dark. HarperOne

Emmons, R. (2013) How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times, Retrieved from Greater Good: https://greater-good.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_can_hlep_you_through_hard_times.

Sandberg, S. (2017). Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Knopf.

Tugade, Fredrickson, and Barrett (2004) Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotional Granularity, Journal of Personality, 2004

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