Bad things happen. It’s just a fact of life.
As far as I can tell, this isn’t going to change anytime soon, unless, of course, a super-intelligent AI comes along and solves all human problems. For the sake of this post, let’s assume that this doesn’t happen for a little while. What are we going to do about it?
Nassim Taleb, in his famous book Antifragile, defines antifragility as follows:
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.
Most people wouldn’t consider themselves to be “antifragile” when it comes to dealing with life’s major stressors and challenges. But according to some researchers, many individuals are in fact antifragile in a major way: experiencing major life challenges in the past can lead them to being significantly happier in the present.
I will get to that in a moment, but first, I must point out that different people respond to adversity in different ways. To overcome a traumatic event can be very emotionally challenging, and not everyone will come away happier. It takes work to get past these events, but there are ways you can go about accelerating your emotional recovery – for instance, writing about your traumatic experience and understanding the significance of negative emotions in the first place.
The aim of this post is to help get you to become more resilient to life’s hardships, hopefully to the point of being “antifragile” with respect to them. That is, so that you may become happier and more successful not in spite of but because of the challenges you have faced.
Research On Resilience
What do the nerds/white coats have to say about human resilience? Quite a bit, actually. But for this post, we will limit our discussion to the research that we may find more practical: can people bounce back from adversity and become even better off, and how?
An article from the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley cites two relevant studies here:
…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.
This is supported by another study I found, which shows that those who have a “moderate” amount of life adversity tend to have a better time coping with new stressors in the present. And:
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.
The second study by Croft et al concluded that past adversity can help people savor the positive experiences in life better than if they had not had the adversity to begin with. This means that those who experience serious adversity may become even more capable of enjoying the simple pleasures in life than those who do not need to bounce back. Oh, and the 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.” Anyone can, theoretically, become antifragile.
In another study by Galli and Vealey (2008), resilience in athletes who had to cope with major setbacks was discussed. Referring to relevant literature, they said:
A recent qualitative study of competitive athletes returning from injury found that while these athletes experienced a variety of negative emotions and encounters with adversity in connection with their return, they also perceived positive consequences such as a renewed perspective, increased motivation, and enhanced mental toughness (Podlog & Eklund, 2006).
In addition, the authors noted that negative experiences can result in an overall positive adaptation when the individual learns from it, gains a new perspective on life because of it, realizes how much social support he has but had previously taken for granted, or even to develop a desire to help others. This last one perfectly describes one of my personal heroes, Eric LeGrand.
So, how do we best learn to become maximally resilient? A recent study on students has shown that those who believed that they could influence their own intelligence or other traits about themselves performed significantly better in school. From the abstract:
Because challenges are ubiquitous, resilience is essential for success in school and in life. In this article we review research demonstrating the impact of students’ mindsets on their resilience in the face of academic and social challenges. We show that students who believe (or are taught) that intellectual abilities are qualities that can be developed (as opposed to qualities that are fixed) tend to show higher achievement across challenging school transitions and greater course completion rates in challenging math courses. New research also shows that believing (or being taught) that social attributes can be developed can lower adolescents’ aggression and stress in response to peer victimization or exclusion, and result in enhanced school performance.
To respond well to challenges, a major principle is to believe that you have control over your own success. You must recognize that you have the capacity to learn and grow from challenges.
In the upcoming sections, we will discuss in more detail how to become as resilient as possible.
When we talk about coping with adversity, there are a wide range of situations that could be included. Depending on the severity of your circumstances, the amount of work you’ll need to do in order to bounce back and become even stronger and happier because of it will differ. Adversity could include things like personal disasters such as a loved one’s death, losing your job, or a rough breakup. Or it could involve getting your arm crushed by a rock while going hiking, and being stuck in the middle of nowhere for 127 hours. But it can also include things like hearing negative feedback, having a business proposal rejected, or a fight with a friend.
No matter what the case may be, there are strategies and mindsets you can use to make yourself resilient to the point of being antifragile – that is, ways that you can position yourself to be even better off than before.
Attitude – You’ve Got What It Takes
Fundamentally, you must always understand that you’ve got what it takes to bounce back from any hardships you may experience. It’s not easy to have the presence of mind to know this, particularly when facing very serious adversity. But it is certainly doable.
The best way to develop this mindset is to consider other times in which you’ve coped well with adversity. I guarantee you, these times exist. Perhaps you’ve lost a job before, but you soldiered on and were able to get a new one soon after. Or your proposal was rejected, but it didn’t bother you so much then and moved on.
As an exercise, I suggest building up a “memory bank” of these experiences. The next time you face some kind of hardship or difficulty, go ahead and think back to one or more of these experiences, and remind yourself that you will recover, and whatever difficulty you are experiencing is transient. If you want, think about other people who have bounced back from adversity and keep their stories in your memory bank.
On a related note, you should do some meditation on your personal strengths and how you’ve used these strengths in the past. Perhaps you have a fantastic work ethic. If that’s the case, then focus on this strength rather than the fact that you may have just lost your job. With such a great work ethic, chances are good that you can take advantage of this trait to find another job quickly.
Finally, it is important to remember that you’ll need to both respond to the demands of the situation as well as the emotional consequences of it. This means you need a way of managing both how you feel about the adversity as well as what you will do to correct any problems that the adversity is causing. Some situations are more emotionally difficult than they are inconvenient, but some are the reverse. You’re recovery will need to address these individually and appropriately.
First Steps When Disaster Strikes
Something bad happened…now what?
First, you’ll want to pause, take a deep breath, and slowly count to ten before doing anything. Oftentimes people have a sort of pre-programmed innate reaction to negative events, but counting to ten with deep breathing helps short circuit this response. That’s a good thing, because having an immediate, emotional reaction is almost always an irrational and unproductive way of handling something bad.
Once you’ve got your automatic emotional response under control, there are a few things you can and should do:
- Remember that bad things happen to everyone on a regular basis. You are not unique in this, nor are you alone. If your tire blows out, you just got one of your 10-15 annoying bad events per year that almost inevitably happens.
- Take a walk. Preferably spend time outside in nature. This can help you clear your mind, or begin to sort out your thoughts.
- Conversely, surround yourself with other people. Find people who are calm and collected, and take advantage of the fact that emotional states are contagious. The best thing would be to find people who are experienced with adversity (perhaps they are currently dealing with the same problem), but who you know handle it well.
- Get some hugs or cuddle with your loved one. Physical touch is very soothing.
- Allow yourself to feel shitty. Don’t fight your negative emotions – they are an important part of the process, and fighting will do no good. Just don’t wallow in the negative emotions or take on a victim’s mentality because of it. Feel the emotions fully, and then when they dissipate, let them.
Finally, don’t give up on yourself. Emotional recovery takes time.
A Few More Ways To Build Resilience
There are many more specific things you can do to build resilience, both in the midst of hardship as well as in advance of when adversity strikes. In this section, I’ll cover a handful of them.
The most important thing you can do to build up resilience in preparation for adversity is to develop a strong support system. This means doing things that foster positive social bonds and improve the strength of your social network. The people who you are close with provide huge amounts of emotional support when you go through tough times, and this is critical. But not only that, your friends and colleagues can provide practical support that will make your life easier as well. For instance, your network can help you find a job after being laid off, or cook a nice meal for you after a loved one dies, so you don’t have to yourself. The importance of your social network cannot be overstated.
What about when you are in the midst of an actual hardship and are largely “stuck” with the social support network you have, at least in the short term? Here are a few things you can do to help you bounce back:
- Recognize and reward yourself for the small successes on your road to recovery. You should have high expectations of yourself, but don’t expect immediate perfection. When you take steps to move in the right direction, give yourself a pat on the back. If you lost your job, let yourself feel good about sending applications out. Or if you got injured, reward yourself when you make progress in physical therapy.
- Help other people with their problems. It definitely puts your own issues in perspective. Eric LeGrand, after becoming paralyzed from the neck down, has given many incredibly inspiring speeches, for instance.
- Think about life skills. Consider what skills you already have or may need to develop in order to cope with your particular case of adversity. That may involve learning a new computer language to get a particular job. Or it might involve developing new relationship skills in the case of a breakup.
- Focus on developing some gratitude for whatever was lost. A good example would be an injured baseball player, who, once back in the game, appreciates all the more how his body functions while healthy. And then he may take better care of it, for instance, by practicing yoga.
For more on building resiliency, check out the Art of Manliness’s series on the subject.
Beyond Resilience – Becoming Antifragile
Some of the above techniques would fit into the category of becoming antifragile, but this section will present some additional means to do so.
A fundamental aspect of becoming antifragile is to be able to accept criticism and even failure well. In whatever form negative feedback comes to you, you must be able to use it to learn and better yourself. You will inevitably have ventures that fail, you will strike out sometimes, and you’ll get rejected. But antifragility means not just trying again, but learning from your past mistakes.
Really, anything negative is an opportunity for growth: a “crisitunity,” as Homer Simpson said, combining crisis and opportunity. Here are three posts which should help you develop this mindset:
- The Abundance Mentality: A Complete Guide
- A Practical Guide To Reframing Your Thoughts And Making Yourself Happier
- Reframing Rejection: Getting Rejected Doesn’t Always Have To Hurt
Another major principle of becoming antifragile is to make yourself as flexible as possible by increasing redundancies. In other words, having backups or workarounds to certain situations. This means that in times of hardship, you will be able to quickly get yourself on your feet and adjust your circumstances as necessary. Of course, this doesn’t really apply to certain kinds of disasters (what kind of “redundancy” would you have when a loved one dies?), but it is still good practice in general and will help you bounce back.
What this often means in practice is creating your own safety net in various areas of your life. Having an emergency fund will help give you security if you lose your job, possibly allowing you to avoid just accepting the first new offer that comes your way and allowing you to look for a better one. Socially, this means having multiple friend groups – when some people are out of town, you still have people to hang out with. And so on.
Similarly, you should just generally try to structure your life in ways that make you more flexible or give you more options. Fight to be able to work remotely a couple days per week, or learn a wider variety of skills. Some of these things may involve taking risks or stepping out of your comfort zone. Go ahead and conquer your fears; an expanded comfort zone will make it far easier for you to recover from and adjust to any bad situations that may arise.
You’ll also want to eliminate the things that make you more fragile. So quit smoking, remove unhealthy foods from your diet, pay off your debts, and shake off any toxic relationships you may have.
There is also a specific exercise from the aforementioned Greater Good article that I would like to quote at length here, because I think it has a lot of potential to help build resilience and help you to ultimately become happier because of your adversity.
1. Pause. Take a few seconds to come to conscious awareness of being present and aware in this moment
2. 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.
3. 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?
4. Shift the focus of your awareness again to how you feel about yourself now, noticing any sense of self-acceptance, self-appreciation, pride, or strength available to you now.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
Running through this exercise, along with making some of the lifestyle changes outlined above, will go a long way towards helping you become antifragile and maximally resilient. As such, you will be able to recover from hardships that come your way, and even end up becoming stronger for it.
One of the most unfathomably horrible tragedies in history was the Holocaust. Remember that, chances are, whatever tragedy or hardship has befallen you, it almost certainly pales in comparison. In his amazing book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl describes what I believe is truly the best way to handle adversity: find meaning, even in the worst of conditions. Susan B. Fine eloquently elaborates:
The identification of purpose, or finding meaning in an ordeal, was described by Viktor Frankl (1984) as “the last of human freedoms"—choosing one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, having at least the power and the control over how you interpret and explain what happens to you. Individuals find meaning and purpose in many different ways. Some find it in an increased commitment to religion, a political ideal, or a social cause. Others find it by using intellect and creativity to combat devastating fear. Many concentration camp victims and prisoners of war played chess and built houses, nail by nail, in their mind’s eye; one man prepared a full German–English dictionary on scraps of paper during his incarceration and published it after his release. Others claimed that even forced labor was sustaining.
You can and should take every step you can in order to make yourself more resilient, but ultimately, a tragedy is still a tragedy. When something truly horrible happens, you must remember to find meaning, and come up with a reason to bounce back.