I was sitting in the breakroom at work one day last week, when a headline in the paper caught my eye. “Mood improves when the going gets tough,” it read, and I thought, “What is this bullshit?”*
Apparently, this so-called bullshit is the result of a study that followed nearly 2000 adults for several years, keeping track of all the upsetting life events (illness, death, divorce, job loss, natural and other disasters) they faced up to and during the study, and taking surveys of their perceived happiness. The result was that people who had faced many of these adversities (“up to a dozen,” the article says), and those who had faced zero (“Who are these people who have managed to go through life with nothing bad happening to them?” UC Irvine psychologist/study conductor Roxane Cohen Silver wondered), checked in with about the same level of unhappiness.
“It was those in the middle, those reporting two to six stressful events, who scored highest on several measures of well-being, and who showed the most resilience in response to recent hits,” the article observes. Evidently, people who periodically face adversity, as opposed to those who face it regularly or not at all, are able to build up their coping skills and become familiar with their true support networks, so they’re more prepared for life’s next blow. “The findings suggest that mental toughness is something like physical strength: It cannot develop without exercise, and it breaks down when overworked.”
The article is careful to point out that the study does not mean to minimize the effects of a traumatic or stressful life-event. Cohen Silver said, “These people were truly suffering…. But it does appear that… you may learn something.”
Reading this article, I did a quick mental count of all the heavy hits in my life: my childhood choir director (who, in many ways, helped to raise me) died when I was 18; I got divorced; I miscarried.** That’s three – safely within the two-to-six range that should leave me happier than those whose lives have been unaffected by tragedy, or over-affected by tragedy.
So, I asked myself, am I happier than the average person? I mean, in spite of all the time I spend contemplating my life as it was, is, and could be? And I think the answer is yes: I am surprisingly happy with my life, given its events and circumstances. I love my family, I love my friends, I love my partner, I love my job. I smile daily. And sure, I do occasionally get busy or overwhelmed and forget to do the things that enhance my happiness, and I do have that handful of events to draw on if I need to illustrate the injustice of the world, but overall… I can’t really complain.
And I can’t really believe I just wrote that.
In my mind, I’m not that different from the girl who started this project six months ago, wondering how she’d ever make it through the personal apocalypse she’d somehow found herself in. But that girl would have read this article and called shenanigans the whole way through, whereas this girl can read it and think, “Yep. I’m doing alright.”
“Perhaps the one most fundamental thing you learn in living through an experience like this is that you can come out the other end of almost anything,” University of Missouri psychologist Laura King said. “You say, ‘Well, it may have crushed me, but I survived.'”
*The article, I learned after searching for it online, was actually a syndicate from New York Times reporter Benedict Carey, originally published in the Times on January 3rd. Also, when I stopped by my parents’ house on Saturday afternoon, I found that my mom had also seen it and thought of me – the two pages were clipped out, stapled together, and laying on the table next to my Victoria’s Secret catalog.
**I chose not to count the other deaths I’ve experienced, as my choir director’s was the most personally affecting, and I also chose to ignore some of the lesser traumatizing events of my life: the time this boy I liked said I was ugly and that no one liked me (and various other teenage heartbreaks), the time I got fired from Baskin Robbins for calling the boss a bitch behind her back (a coworker told on me), the time my purse was stolen out of my hand on a Lyon street corner… Although those things all felt like the end of the world at the time, none of them came immediately to mind while I was reading the article, so I figure they were daily stressors, not major life events worthy of being counted.