This year I was asked to speak at my college reunion on the topic of “what to do if life throws you a curveball.”
Here are some ways you can be resilient when life doesn’t go the way you had hoped:
Count your blessings AND count your contributions
An important lesson in the path to healing is to focus on the present moment and the things you ARE grateful for; it keeps you in your heart-based energy and makes you appreciate the good. Harvard researcher Shawn Achor found that people who make it a habit to take just two minutes a day to appreciate specific people and situations, they experience up to a 30 percent increase in happiness over the course of a month. You might also embark on a project to write out 100-200 things you are grateful for. Once you get past the ‘obvious’ things you will start to notice even everyday details you might have taken for granted.
Personally, I take one to two minutes before I fall asleep each night to answer, “what was the BEST thing that happened today?” and “what are the most important things I’m grateful for today?”
In addition, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant talk about the added value of ‘counting your contributions’ in their worthwhile book, Option B. This includes not only what you are grateful for but noticing how you have contributed to others. This can often help you feel proud of who you are when you might be feeling down about your life.
In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg also talks about a strategy that helped her, which was to be grateful that ‘it wasn’t worse.’ Whenever she thought about how painful her husband’s death was, she reminds herself how much worse it would have been if he had a heart attack while driving their children in a car. This could’ve led to the loss of her whole family. She then refocused her attention back to her feelings of gratitude for the lives of her children.
Create meaningful experiences
While you are dealing with challenging or unexpected situations you wish hadn’t happened, it can be helpful to stay open to how you can make meaning of your situation. A pithy way of thinking about this is to consider how challenging experiences might have happened “for you” rather than “to you.”
As Joseph Campbell says, “We must let go of the life we had planned in order to accept the life that is waiting for us.”
A few of my classmates illustrate this with regard to hardships with people they loved. Two parents of autistic children turned their unexpected situation into a mission. One of the parents, a filmmaker, channeled her creative energy into making an award-winning film about her son. The other started a highly successful company that cares for autistic children with cutting-edge online resources. What amazing examples of how to ‘do well by doing good.’
As philosophers remind us: When you have a “why” that is strong enough, you can endure any ‘how.’
Stay resilient with the three Ps
There is a lot of research about how to stay resilient without getting depressed in the face of life’s challenges. The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, advises that you have a better chance of staying optimistic when you appraise your situation with the three Ps:
- Personal – Try not to take the situation personally or think it’s your fault.
- Pervasive – Try not to see the challenge as affecting every area of your life; maintain some aspects of your life where you can still have joy and connection.
- Permanent – Try not to see your depressed feelings as permanent; have more of a long-term perspective. Most people who go through difficult periods come to see that ‘this too shall pass’ even though at the time your pain or darkness feels permanent.
I hope these reflections are useful to you as you create a life you want to live.