I have always been curious about why, despite really tough circumstances, many people manage to take the lemons life throws at them and make them into lemonade. I have also always loved this saying. Apart from making me smile at the thought of adodging lemons being lobbed in my direction, for me it represents, through taking something sour and making it sweetly fizz and bubble, the very essence of gratitude and an effervescent joy and love of life.
As my journey unfolds, I have often been curious about how the resources I have developed have enabled me to overcome my own challenges and whilst managing life’s difficulties, noticing that I have simultaneously found many moments of joy and happiness. One state does not preclude the other, a finding that appeared to be common to those around me who shared their journeys with me; friends, colleagues and my study participants who faced their own bumpy roads.
The balance between triumphs and trauma
Whilst positive psychology focuses on how humans flourish, it also fully acknowledges life’s hardships. There is no smooth life path and we all face challenges every day, but often these difficulties become a source of our own personal growth. The human condition is one of constantly trying to maintain the balance, encompassing the duality of our ability to be both happy and struggling at the same time.
Yet so many of us appear to triumph over our traumas, finding or maintaining our equilibrium, despite internal and external chaos. As my life has unfolded, I have noticed that psychological strength is not simply pushing through pain, or pretending to be happy, but as Dr Paul Wong (2013) suggests, finding meaning and purpose in our lives can help us overcome negative emotions so that we remain resilient, whatever our challenges.
Uniquely resilient and resiliently unique
My personal interest in the balance between resilience and happiness became the focus of both my undergraduate and postgraduate psychology studies. Despite one study looking at a chronically ill medical population and the other looking at the lived experience of immigrant women, the common thread throughout my research was the participants’ ability to experience gratitude for what was good in life, whilst facing hardships head-on or working to change circumstances which were less than desirable.
Resilience researcher Anne Masten (2014) suggests that there is something magical about our human ability to face difficulties and yet still embrace life. Yet the art of resilient coping depends on many factors; personality type, genetics and character strengths to name a few, but it is the combination of these factors which makes for our individuality, our uniqueness. Despite our individual differences, Masten argues that there is a commonality in our ability to cope, respond and bounce back from challenges by drawing on our resources, strengths and abilities.
Understanding that we are already resilient
As positive psychological research has shown, whilst humans are “hard-wired” for survival, we can use the resources and behaviours which help us cope with turbulent times and continue to build on them to help us flourish. We often don’t realise while we get on with the business of living, that each small challenge we overcome, each life lesson learned not only makes use of the attributes we already possess but helps us become better equipped for the next challenge that comes our way. I recently reconnected with a friend of mine who put it beautifully, when she said, “once you get to our age, you realise that life is a constant series of lurching from one crisis to another”. In the next breath she spoke of the joy of living her life full of love and gratitude. This is how it is for many of us.
Whether the crises are small and the triumphs large, or the other way around, drawing on what we already have inside of us, developing our resources and staying open to life’s rich array of experiences can help us put challenges into perspective and face them with acceptance and a sense that even when things are not so great, we are still OK. Life does not have to be exclusively good or bad but is a mix of the sweet and the sour. Just like lemonade.
Masten, A. S. (2014). Ordinary magic: Resilience in development. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
Wong, P. T. (Ed.). (2013). The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications. Routledge.
About the author: Monique Zahavi