Everyone wants to be happy. This goal is so central to the human experience that its “pursuit” is written into the US Declaration of Independence.
Is perpetual happiness possible? And even more — is it even desirable?
In 1962 Victor and Mildred Goertzel published a book called Cradles of Eminence: A Provocative Study of the Childhoods of Over 400 Famous Twentieth-Century Men and Women. They chose people who had had at least two biographies written about them and had made a positive contribution to society. Their subjects included Henry Ford, Louis Armstrong, Frida Kahlo, Eleanor Roosevelt and Marie Curie.
The Goertzels found that less than 15% of their famous men and women had been raised in supportive, untroubled homes. Ten percent had grown up in a mixed setting. Of the 400 successful people, 75% had grown up in a family with some kind of significant problem or burden. The authors concluded there was some connection between performance and success and overcoming adversity.
In other words, these social and business leaders were resilient.
No one would ever argue that people should be deliberately subjected to difficult circumstances. In fact, many of these conditions are injustices that should be eliminated. But neither, it would seem, is it ideal for people to be raised in a “happy” situation that is defined as one which insulates and isolates someone from any difficulty or obstacle.
This view of resilience is confirmed by studies of not only well-known individuals, but also people in every walk of life. For example, psychologists Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith have observed 698 people on the Hawaiian island of Kauai since 1955. The results of their Kauai Longitudinal Study were most recently summarized in their 2001 book Journeys From Childhood to Midlife.
Those in the study who overcame difficult childhoods were active problem-solvers who consistently worked for better lives for themselves. They identified and used to their advantage whatever particular strengths they had, from a quick wit to an engaging personality. They set ambitious but realistic goals. They seized opportunities that came their way, from education to good friends. And they sought out people who supported and cared about them, including teachers, friends, relatives and work colleagues.
Perhaps most important, those who overcame adversity to reach their goals never gave up. According to research by Anke Ehlers of the University of Oxford, it is this “fighter within” that drives resilience. Ehlers found that even when those faced with adversity “made their peace” with difficult external conditions through their behavior, an inner determination to overcome those conditions greatly reduced post-traumatic stress. Never mentally “giving in or giving up” is what enables people to come through adversity stronger and more capable.
Given all this, what can we do to become more resilient?
First, seek out and begin a challenging project. Whether it’s taking up karate, learning to play an instrument or completing an educational or training course, determining to succeed on your own terms can help prepare you to succeed when the terms are imposed by external conditions.
Next, resist giving in to circumstances or persons who would hold you back from achieving your legitimate goals. Actions to succeed in the face of adversity really do begin with an unshakeable mental determination to overcome.
Third, engage in active coping. Most serious adversities are neither quickly nor easily solved. Come up with a plan to improve your situation and work toward it in a consistent and continual way. Progress increases our determination and reminds us of our own strength and capacity.
Finally, reach out to others. Perhaps the greatest — and most harmful — myth out there is that resilient people don’t need help. In fact, seeking support is exactly what resilient people do. Friends, family, colleagues, professional psychologists, workplace trainers and others are all there to help you see it through.
Happiness is great. But given the fact that life presents us all with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” resilience might even be better. It’s a skill within reach of everyone.