Last Christmas I got really sick. I was knocked out for two weeks – the longest I’ve ever been sick in my life. I couldn’t eat, I could barely sleep, I just wanted it to end, it felt so horrid.
Then I got better.
But I didn’t just get better, I got BETTER!
Once I was well again, I was walking around with a new found appreciation for my health, for life and for all the little things that I usually take for granted. Things like eating, having energy, smiling, being able to go out, meeting friends and being able to focus on my work.
I was feeling better than I was before I got sick.
Has this happened to you?
Think back to the last time you got sick and then got better. Or a time when something was going wrong in your life and then started to improve.
Did you experience that feeling of heightened joy and gratitude when things were back on the up?
I’ve noticed this especially in people who’ve experienced great suffering – trauma, severe illness, poverty and breakdown of life as they know it. Those who’ve been through the worst suffering are often capable of being happier than those who have not.
Getting a little sick did not necessarily give me long lasting appreciation and happiness regarding my health, but in other areas of my life where I have suffered, I certainly have immense gratitude and joy. In fact, it seems that the deeper my grief and pain, the greater my ability to find and hold on to happiness.
Proving the link between suffering and greater happiness
Researchers from the University of British Columbia and Barcelona School of Management studied just under 15,000 people who had varying levels of exposure to painful experiences including bereavement and divorce. They invited them to enjoy pleasant experiences like taking a hike or looking at a waterfall.
The results looked at the person’s ability to ‘savour’ the pleasant experience. Savouring is defined by Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff (2007) as noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life. Savoring is more than pleasure – it also involves mindfulness and “conscious attention to the experience of pleasure”.
The study found that those who were currently in the midst of suffering had a ‘diminished ability to savour positive events’. This is understandable, when you are emotionally and psychologically embroiled in pain it can be very hard to suddenly ‘get happy’. It can be like trying to travel from England to Australia in a single step.
But what the study also found is that ‘individuals who had dealt with more adversity in the past reported an elevated capacity for savouring.’
Yes, that’s right: the more pain they experienced in the past, the more happiness they were able to experience now through their ability to appreciate the positive aspects of life.
Their pain was a portal to happiness.
How did they do it?
That’s the million dollar question! The question that Positive Psychologists work on answering.
There are many traits that help a person transform pain into heightened joy, such as practicing gratitude, having a positive, meaningful perspective and maintaining hope. We can consciously practice these and they do work. I can testify to that in my own life.
What I can also testify to is that sometimes it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what I ‘did’ to turn pain into happiness. Sometimes it can feel like a very naturally occurring, sub conscious process of growth.
Perhaps then, the potential to turn greater pain into greater happiness is within everyone. Just as a tree can only grow taller if it has deeper and longer roots, just as a child cannot grow taller with without some growing pains – it has to happen.
So don’t fight your pain, let it help you grow.
About the author: To find out more about Pinky Jangra, click here.