How To Grow From Unhappiness

Whereas mankind has traditionally been concerned with the pursuit of happiness, greater wisdom would seem to lie in figuring how to be productively unhappy.

After all, misery is bound to happen to us, repeatedly.

Therefore, the value of suffering fruitfully outruns the use of any Utopian quest for blissful happiness.

Accordingly, the French novelist Marcel Proust (1871–1922) concurs that:

“The whole art of living is to make use of the individuals through whom we suffer.”

Let’s see how.

Suffering is not enough

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) is well-known for his theory that suffering is an indispensable ingredient for optimal self-development. In Twilight of the Idols, he wrote:

“What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

When taken literally, this is overstated. Decades of psychological research show that stressors are generally bad for humans, contributing to anxiety, depression and heart disease.

Not all unpleasant but non-lethal experiences turn out beneficial because lack of death does not suffice for reaping the benefits of agony. Crucially, suffering by itself is not enough, but setbacks offer a possibility for advancement.

It’s up to us to take that possibility.

Post-traumatic growth

Since Nietzsche, psychologists have studied how to achieve, as they call it, posttraumatic growth.

Before delving into the ‘how’, let’s look at what such growth is about. Identifying the possible benefits of distress, will help us in figuring out how to best extract these advantages from the more unpleasant episodes of our lives.

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that there are three primary ways in which people profit from traumas.

First, rising to a challenge reveals your hidden abilities, and recognizing these abilities changes the way you think about yourself. Haidt points out that we don’t really know what we are capable of enduring. We say things like ‘I would never be able to handle that’, but, guess what, you probably are. The only way of discovering the true depth of your strength is by having your limits thoroughly tested. Potentially, such an experience enhances your capabilities and raises your sense of self-worth.

Second, going through hell can both filter and enhance your relationships. It will separate fair-weather friends from real comrades and can deepen the connection you have with the people in your life.

Third, misery has the power to act as a wake-up call and to correct your views about what really matters in life. Haidt writes:

“When tragedy strikes it knocks you off the treadmill and forces a decision: Hop back on and return to business as usual, or try something else? Adversity may be necessary for growth because it forces you to stop speeding along the road of life and, allowing you to notice the paths that were branching off all along, and to think about where you really want to end up.”

Tell me how, please

To recapitulate, if we do things right, trauma can make us stronger, improve our relationships and increase the extent to which our lives is geared towards meaningful values which correspond to our true selves.

Now, recall that suffering and not dying are not enough for acquiring those perks — for that, we need to actively engage in certain behaviors.

The million-dollar question, then, is what these behaviors for turning sorrow into enhancement are.

The research on post-traumatic growth is still a developing field — psychologists have long been narrowly focused on curing mental disorders, not interested in aiding non-diagnosed humans. However, thanks to a countermovement called ‘positive psychology’, the balance is being restored.

One of its proponents, Jamie Pennebaker, has devoted his career to investigating what separates successful sufferers from those who fail to come back stronger after surviving life’s punches.

Finding meaning

In his book Opening Up, he presents his findings. According to him, sense-making is the key that unlocks post-traumatic growth. You can benefit from adversity by making sense of it and drawing constructive lessons from it.

How do we do that?

As the title of Pennebaker’s book suggests, the chief means for this is self-disclosure.

Studies found that people who have experienced trauma and talk about it (with loved ones or a support group, for example) were largely spared its health-damaging effects. Writing about it in a journal had similar effects. Interestingly, dancing and singing to express emotions did not.

The crux: to make sense of bad life-events you must use words, and these words must help you to create a meaningful story.

Like concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frank beautifully shows in Man’s Search for Meaning: anything can have meaning, but it’s up to you to find it.

How to make sense of misery?

“I’ve come to realize that bad times coupled with good reflection provides some of the best lessons.” -Ray Dalio

To find meaning in hardship, we should pull out a piece of paper and write about it. Pennebaker advices writing for at least 15 minutes for multiple consecutive days.

We shouldn’t just blurt on the paper, however. We should aim to gain insight into why these events happened and into why we reacted as we did. For these purposes, Haidt recommends:

“Before you conclude your last session, be sure to have done your best to answer these two questions: Why did this happen? What good might I derive from it?”

You need to get your thoughts and feelings out, unrestricted, but in such a way that meaning emerges and sense-making is facilitated. To achieve that, figure out the questions whose answers you need to face and write acutely about them, aiming to penetrate them fully.

When you do that, you might actually have a shot of getting stronger.


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