The key to contentment is embracing, rather than erasing, all the challenges of life.
When things go wrong, it’s hard not to crumble. But experts say that learning from the things that have gone wrong can help us to achieve a happy life.
The famously long-running Harvard Grant Study in the US aimed to unearth the secrets of a happy and purposeful life by following the lives of real people from childhood until old age. It returned to the study participants at different stages of their lives, over a period of 75 years, to see how they had changed and what they had learned. George Vaillant, the psychiatrist who directed the study for more than 30 years and wrote a book about it in 2012 – Triumphs Of Experience (Harvard University Press, £20.95) – found that people who learned from their mistakes or misfortunes were more fulfilled in their older years. He discovered that the capacity to ‘make gold’ out of undesirable situations also had a significant effect on social support and overall wellbeing.
Try it out
Keep a ‘challenge notebook’ and audit every challenge that comes by asking the following four questions of each one. This will help you understand the value in things not going according to plan.
- What can I learn from this? It’s easy to see challenges as irksome or maybe even devastating. But if, once the dust has settled, we can ask ‘What can I learn from this?’ there may be something positive that can be learned from it. Maybe, for example, the learning experience from your children flying the nest might be the realisation that you’re someone who rather likes solitude.
- What strength can I gain from this? If we view challenges as a chance to become more capable, we can see them as a springboard to greater things rather than an obstacle to hold us back. Having to confront challenging situations can help us unlock untapped strengths and abilities. Write these (such as ‘good in a crisis’ or ‘realistic’) in your notebook as reminders of this growth.
- How can I use this to my advantage? A challenge can sometimes open our minds to alternatives that may not previously have occurred to us. For example, losing a job might give you some breathing space to be creative or to consider other career options you’ve always been to busy to investigate (so your notebook entry may say, ‘I now have more time to consider what I truly want’ rather than ‘I no longer have a job’).
- How can I use this situation to help other people? If you refuse to let a challenge floor you, it could be you motivate and inspire others who are facing similar challenges. For example, after her goth daughter was kicked to death in 2007, Sylvia Lancaster founded the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, using her loss to help create respect and understanding for subcultures.
MARTHA ROBERTS is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com
Photograph: plainpicture/Image Source (David Jakle)