Flexing my resilience muscle

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.

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16 Responses to Flexing my resilience muscle

  1. Elphaba says:

    Hmm, I only count my miscarriage as major life trauma. Does the inability to get pregnant a year later count as well? Or is that just one thing all tied up in one ball of crap? I’ve been lucky otherwise I suppose (discounting minor things as you mentioned, of course.)

    Honestly, I don’t feel that happy right now. I wish I could say I did. I do have lots of great things in my life, but they’re all overshadowed that one big thing…

    • Marie says:

      Don’t be so hard on yourself. It also took me 2.5 years to get here. And I’m not trying to get pregnant, so my tied-up-ball-of-crap is gathering moss for the moment, rather than rolling down the hill gathering more crap.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Re: the tactful young gentleman who provided you with his holistic personal feedback: I’m curious how you responded. Because in my book, the only correct response to a comment like that is to slightly stretch out your arms, start making gurgling noises, and threaten to consume his brains.

  3. Dad says:

    Yeah! (cannot “like” it since I don’t see it on Facebook so I “yeah” it here).

    Did you read the McRoskey article I sent?

  4. Julia says:

    Double yeah. Perspective matters, yo. I believe your brother and I can count that on our fingertips.

    I love this post. It’s great to see the transformative power of blogging!

  5. Arohanui says:

    “The findings suggest that mental toughness is something like physical strength: It cannot develop without exercise, and it breaks down when overworked.”

    Oh I so agree with this theory of strengthening resilience through adversity, but not having so much that it just destroys your soul. How fantastic to discover that you are, in actual fact, happy. Your journey through grief is further along than you realise.

    I love that your mum cut out the article for you 🙂 And, that your dad is a social networker!

  6. curlyqginger says:

    I am with out a doubt in the 2-6 range, and I have to say… I do come out stronger every time. Every knock down and life changing circumstance seems to make me a little more capable of copping in a positive and healthy way.

    I think I’m way happier and more adjusted than my friends who let all of life knock them down or have had a ‘Silver Platter’ life. If I didn’t go through everything I have been through, I don’t know who the hell I’d be. I can promise however, I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now. 🙂

  7. slcurwin says:

    I’m at 8 major traumas (I didn’t think it was that much) and I’d have to say that I always have and still do consider myself way happier than most people. I guess we also learn to appreciate things more than other people that way.

    And when I was in grade 5 I was singing quietly to myself and one of the boys in my class said “Awww GOD, can you STOP that!” and I’ve never been able to let people (other than Monster) hear me sing ever since (admitedly, I don’t have a great voice). And now I see him on TV all the time in his BLOODY STUPID commercials. He makes me angry…I should probably let that go, lol.

    • Marie says:

      Eight?! Damn, girl.

      I have not always considered myself way happier than most people. I’ve actually been told I have a depressive personality type. But I feel happy most of the time these days, and I’ll take it.

      Your childhood tormenter is on TV? I hope his commercials are for something really stupid like hemorrhoid cream.

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