How Your Challenging Past Can Lead to a Happier Present
“T hat which does not kill us outright makes us stronger,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche more than 100 years ago. As a psychotherapist for 20 years, I’ve seen clients bear this out many times.
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through my divorce without losing my sanity,” my client Karen told me just last week, “but looking back now, I realize I was much stronger than I thought, and I know that I’m much stronger now. Whatever curveball comes next, I know I can trust myself to handle it.”
Researchers call this “post-traumatic growth”; a 2010 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that adverse experiences often promote hardiness and resilience, shaping how people handle subsequent challenges. In other words, experiencing trauma doesn’t simply condemn us to a life of suffering and helplessness. Instead, we can pull strength, courage, and wisdom out of misfortune after having been caught in it.
Now there’s evidence that the benefits may run even deeper than that: A recent study suggests that experiencing adversity can not only equip us to deal with negative events but also help us appreciate the positive ones, possibly increasing our overall satisfaction with life.
In the study, published in Psychological Science, Alyssa Croft of the University of British Columbia and her colleagues surveyed 15,000 adults, asking them to indicate whether they had ever experienced major traumas in the past or were experiencing them in the present; the participants cited discrimination, divorce, death of a spouse, illness or injury, and military combat, among other challenges. The research team also measured the participants’ capacities for savoring—that is, how much they prolong and deepen their positive emotional response to pleasurable moments, such as a physical comfort or being in nature.
Croft’s team found that people currently experiencing serious difficulties in the present were not able to enjoy simple pleasures of the moment very well—in fact, they enjoyed them less than other people. However, they also found that people who had experienced serious difficulties in the past showed stronger capacities for savoring in the present than people who had not experienced such traumas. “People who have overcome more adversity in the past are better at savoring life’s small pleasures,” write the authors, “which in turn could promote greater life satisfaction.”
That said, Croft and her colleagues caution that adversity is not beneficial under all circumstances, and not all people who have suffered a trauma will inevitably lead more satisfying lives as a result. “Emotionally overcoming a negative event,” they write, “is an important prerequisite for turning adversity into appreciation.” And overcoming that event often requires a lot of time and work, possibly involving a great deal of psychological distress.
How Adversity Helps Us Grow
Still, after working through a negative event, I have very often seen my clients enjoy the benefits identified by this study. Surviving a life-threatening illness can help them appreciate the very gift of being alive at all. Experiencing a serious loss can help them appreciate what they have now.
“I pay more attention to the little things now—the dimples in my daughter’s cheek when she smiles, the text my friend Kathy sent just to say ‘Hi,’” my client Karen told me after getting through her difficult divorce. “I know these moments are precious, and I know I don’t want to miss them.” In fact, I now deliberately teach my clients to find the links between past adversity and a deeper enjoyment of the present (see below for an example).
It’s important to note that Croft and her colleagues found that this link between savoring and adversity was not correlated with personality traits, meaning that this benefit might be available to most anyone, regardless of his or her personality. The researchers propose that future research could explore whether capacities for savoring correlate with emotional intelligence or the social support one receives from others.
It’s also important for psychotherapists, as well as clients, to recognize the signs of unresolved trauma—withdrawal and isolation, feeling overwhelmed in the face of life’s ordinary ups and downs, not being able to move forward with one’s life and progress toward achieving one’s goals—and take appropriate steps to bring unprocessed trauma to resolution.
How to Use Past Adversity to Savor the Present
To move in this positive direction—and in light of Croft’s study—here is an exercise to use past adversity as a way to savor the present. Make sure you've emotionally overcome a difficult event before trying this exercise.
●︎ Pause. Take a few seconds to come to conscious awareness of being present and aware in this moment
●︎ Bring to mind one moment of difficulty, pain, suffering, loss from the past. Feel into every facet of the memory—visual images of what happened, all the people you were with, any emotions you felt then or any emotions you feel now as you remember the event. Notice where you feel those emotions in your body. Notice any thoughts you have about yourself now as you remember this event.
●︎ Shift the focus of your awareness to reflect on how you coped with the event and its aftermath. What lessons did you learn? What wisdom did you pull out of the misfortune you were in? What would you do differently now, having coped with and survived this event as you did?
●︎ Shift the focus of your awareness again. Note how you feel about yourself now, noticing any sense of self-acceptance, self-appreciation, pride, or strength available to you now.
●︎ Shift the focus of your attention once more. Notice anything in your surroundings or circumstances, right now, or anything you encounter during the rest of the day, that brings even a small acknowledgement of delight: the warmth of the sun on your face, the bitter-sweetness of a piece of chocolate, the memory of a recent conversation with a friend.
●︎ Take 30 seconds to simply be with and appreciate the joy and pleasure of the moment. Let any warm, peaceful feeling sink into your body. Savor the feeling.
●︎ Repeat savoring this same or similar moment several times during the next six hours. The repetition will strengthen the memory of it; you are creating a resource of positivity you can draw on any time you encounter a new moment of adversity.