The benefits of resilience

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 3 of The Year of Happy‘s month on resilience. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

If given a choice, most people who go through tragedy, who lose a loved one or become disabled, would never choose that path. But believe it or not, some would – and the reason is because going through the process of growth can be life-changing.

The benefits of going through trauma

If post-traumatic growth really is a common response to trauma, we would expect that trauma itself would be linked to positive outcomes. And that’s exactly what the research suggests: in a 2010 study of about 2,000 Americans over four years, the people who had experienced a moderate number of traumas – illness, losing a loved one, a natural disaster – were doing the best. They had higher well-being and greater satisfaction with life than people who had experienced few traumas (and people who had experienced a great many). It seems that there is some kind of sweet spot for adversity, where surviving enough hardship changes life for the better.

One way it does so is by preparing us for inevitable future adversity. Police officers who have experienced trauma in the past are more resilient when something awful happens on the job, showing fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms and an increased appreciation for life. People with chronic back pain who have experienced moderate adversity cope better with their condition: they are less physically impaired, need less pain medication, go to the doctor less often, and are less likely to be unemployed. Back pain doesn’t loom so large when you have faced much worse in the past.

In this TEDx talk, Luke Bailey explains how a series of adversities – from his daughter’s disability to his sisters’ deaths – helped him move from an attitude of “I don’t think I can do this” to “This is life”:

The benefits of benefit finding

Unsurprisingly, It’s beneficial to see the benefits in a negative experience.

Seeing the upside to adversity is good for our mental health. People who engage in benefit finding have more purpose and happier relationships, for example. They are less likely to get depression and PTSD, and even their health is affected. Various studies have linked benefit finding to better immune function, a healthier stress response, and improved physical function. Among 287 men who had a heart attack, the ones who saw benefits shortly after were less likely to have had another heart attack (or died) eight years later. Similarly, women with HIV who can see an upside to their condition are more likely to be alive five years later.

But you don’t have to be someone who naturally finds silver linings in order to experience benefits. In one study at the University of Miami, participants spent 20 minutes writing about how getting hurt by someone made them a better person and improved their lives. At the end of the study, they were less upset and vengeful, and more forgiving and willing to confront reminders of the experience.

A similar study at Hope College asked participants to merely think about the upside of such an experience for two minutes, and they started to feel less angry and more joyful, grateful, and forgiving. Their physiology even showed a healthy tend-and-befriend response. After short benefit-finding exercises, women with cancer, patients with an autoimmune disorder, and caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s have all seen benefits.  

The benefits of tend-and-befriend

Becoming closer to others is part of the process of post-traumatic growth, one of the instincts we have under stress. And while we know that relationships are good for the mind and body, they may be even more crucial in times of adversity.

People who suffer chronic pain, lose a spouse, or survive natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or life-threatening illness can improve their mental health when they volunteer or take care of others. Across different studies, the process of helping others after trauma has made people feel more optimistic, energetic, purposeful, and hopeful and less anxious, angry, guilty, depressed, and stressed.

Trauma takes its toll on the body, yet social connection seems to protect us from that toll. In a University of Buffalo study, major stressors like bereavement and financial problems were linked to health problems such as back pain, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. But that link disappeared for people who volunteered. Another study at the same university found that a significant stressful life event increased people’s risk of dying in the next five years by 30% – unless they helped others regularly. Then, the trauma didn’t increase their risk at all. 

The benefits of post-traumatic growth

By its very definition, post-traumatic growth involves an invigorated sense of meaning in life. One study also found that experiencing growth is correlated with all the human strengths of character – from humor and bravery to curiosity and hope. Helping us move beyond the stage of post-traumatic stress, post-traumatic growth has been linked to fewer mental health problems and less depression and suicide in the survivors of sexual assault, bereavement, natural disasters, HIV, terrorist attacks, and more.

After becoming blind and losing the use of his left hand, Russell Redenbaugh found a powerful determination to succeed despite his disability – a determination that led him through business school, the creation of a billion-dollar business, and jiu jitsu championships. The lesson he learned? Turn obstacles into opportunities:

The benefits of stress

The relationship between happiness and stress is a strange one. Of course, there are some people who are very stressed and very unhappy about it. But there are other people who are very stressed and very happy, satisfied, and purposeful.

In 2005 and 2006, Gallup conducted a study of about 125,000 people, asking them: Did you have a great deal of stress yesterday? The happiest respondents said they were very stressed but not depressed; the unhappiest respondents had little stress, but also little joy and lots of anger.

But what counts as “stress,” exactly? A 2013 study decided to tease out different definitions of stress and see which ones might be correlated to happiness. In the end, all the definitions they tried – number of stressful events in the past, current stress levels, worrying about the future, and thinking about past struggles – were all associated with seeing life as more meaningful. This lends support to health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s point that stress is a natural byproduct of the things that matter in life. “You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress,” she writes in The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.

A stressful mind can be a high-performing one, across many different domains: students with lots of adrenaline get higher grades on their exams; soldiers swimming in cortisol are less likely to cave during a hostile interrogation; police officers whose hearts are beating faster are less likely to accidentally shoot a hostage during training.

The same is true of entrepreneurs: feeling stressed out one day makes you more likely to learn something that day, too. In one study, more than half of the executives surveyed said they do their best work while stressed. Procrastinators, of course, have known this for years. 

The benefits of a positive stress mindset

If stress on its own can be good for us, it makes sense that the people who recognize this fact will be better off. People who have a positive view of stress are more energetic and optimistic and less depressed. The study that inspired McGonigal’s research found that stress only increases the risk of death for people who think it is bad. Among the 30,000 adults studied over eight years, people with high stress who didn’t see it as harmful were actually less likely to die than people with low stress.

Meanwhile, students who embrace their exam-induced anxiety get better grades and feel less emotionally exhausted. Teachers and doctors with a positive attitude about stress are less likely to feel frustrated, drained, and burned out a year later. And a little tip for giving speeches: instead of telling yourself “I am calm” or “Calm down” before stepping on stage, try “I am excited” – it embraces the stress and will make you perform better.

Here again, these benefits aren’t reserved for the naturally resilient among us, who don’t quake in their boots when they hear how toxic stress is. Various studies have found that you can teach people to see stress in a more positive light, and they too will be better off. For example, a 2008 study (right in the midst of the financial crisis) taught a positive stress mindset to a group of severely stressed employees at a financial firm, and they became more focused, engaged, collaborative, and productive and less anxious, depressed, and sick.

In another study, some Fortune 500 employees were taught how to practice a positive stress mindset in real-time in the throes of stress. After three weeks, they were more focused, creative, and engaged and less anxious and depressed – even though their stress levels hadn’t changed.

Believing that stress is beneficial can even be helpful in The World’s Most Stressful Experiment, otherwise known as the Trier Social Stress Test. Designed to send stress levels off the charts, it asks participants to give a public speech while listeners heckle, roll their eyes, and look bored, then do math calculations in their heads while being told that they’re going too slowly. In some cases, people who go through this diabolical experiment see their cortisol levels rise by 400%. Yet even here, participants given a short overview of stress’s benefits end up being more confident, performing better, and exhibiting a healthy challenge response in their bodies rather than an unhealthy threat response.

So what changes when we see stress as positive? A person with a negative stress mindset who feels their heart start pumping and their hands start sweating would think something along the lines of Oh no, I’m getting nervous, I can’t do this, I have to calm down. But if stress is positive, the dialogue changes: Alright, body, thanks for the extra oxygen and energy, let’s do this. Instead of being distracted by their heart rate and breathing, they refocus on the challenge at hand and how to deal with it. People with a positive view of stress act differently, seeking out help and advice and taking practical steps to overcome their problem. What was once frightening and overwhelming becomes an opportunity to grow.

Sources and further reading

Go back to Week 2: How to cultivate resilience

Move on to Week 4: When it’s hard to be resilient, try this

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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