On one of our first dates, we sat across the table from each other at a sushi restaurant in Chicago and shared stories of growing up in the midst of financial challenges. Shawn’s parents were educators in Waco, Texas, who struggled with credit card debts and as a result did not have enough money to pay for him to go to college. Michelle’s parents made it big with a computer consulting practice in Washington, D.C., before the recession caused them to lose their home.
We are taught not to talk about such things. But if we don’t discuss our challenges, when we find ourselves in troubling times, we feel lost and lonely and cut off from help. These moments could be a source of bonding, healing and learning instead. Those childhood financial difficulties are the very reason we taught ourselves to be fiscally responsible and to save even when things are going well. We are grateful for those tough times as they made us who we are today.
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger"
Sometimes the stressful events that we run from are the same ones that cause us to develop the best and strongest parts of ourselves. In a study we conducted at five companies, including UBS, we found that approximately 90 percent of events that had the biggest positive impacts on people were also high-stress situations.
In this study, research participants were asked to list five pivot points in their lives that changed them and made them who they are today. On average, 80 percent of those points were seemingly negative, including losing a job, failing on a project at work or getting dumped by an ex.
This reminds us that not only can stressful events be beneficial, but also that we should rethink our knee-jerk responses of trying to avoid them in the first place. We need to stop running from discomfort.
Too often we are afraid of what can happen if we take a leap or get out of our comfort zones. We stay stuck in dead-end jobs and toxic relationships. We figure the familiar everyday unhappiness is better than the possible calamitous result if we were to make a change. We run from the risk of unhappiness, and as a result we stay in a less desirable present.
Face your challenges
We have a Marine friend who takes pride in the fact that Marines run toward conflict while others flee. What we flee from we begin to fear more. Facing our own challenges and developing an empowered mindset can help us weather the storm better than a fear-based one. Just like a workout can be uncomfortable or even painful, the mental and physical benefits often make it worth it. If we don’t show up to the gym in the first place because we fear those negative feelings, we will never know what we are capable of. If we show up ready to tackle the workout, that makes it all go more smoothly.
What are you fleeing from? If you’re facing something that is either making you unhappy now or threatening to do so, we encourage you to think through the following takeaways based on our research on people who run toward unhappiness and prevail.
1. Be conscious of the narrative:
Your brain quickly constructs a story around events, and some of those narratives are helpful while others are not. Ask yourself what narrative you’ve derived from this unhappy experience. (Ideally you are looking for something that will serve you in the retelling and make you a better person.) Helpful stories include facts about what you’ve learned from the experience and how you’ve grown as a result. Identifying ways in which you actually benefited from the experience can help you move forward.
2. Identify with strength:
You are probably a strong person or you would not have made it this far. At this point life has probably dealt you a handful of hard circumstances. List them and reflect on the strength you accessed (which you might not have been aware of at the time) to overcome them. By reminding your brain how strong you are, you bolster that positive resource, which you can then tap into to help you in the face of your current challenge.
3. Find support:
We say this nearly every day: Social support is the greatest predictor of long-term happiness. To overcome stressful events, a few supportive people in your life can make all the difference. Even though your first instinct might be to hole up and go it alone, resist that urge. Reach out to trusted friends or family, or find a community of supportive people like a church group or AA. Since we all have our pivotal stories to share, knowing that you’re not alone as you go through a difficult time can make all the difference.
For us, just learning that we both experienced financial troubles in childhood was incredibly bonding. That became yet one more benefit to having gone through those experiences in the first place—and the start of a beautiful relationship!
SHAWN ACHOR is best-selling author of the The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Shawn’s TED Talk is one of the most popular ever, with over 5 million views, and his PBS program has been seen by millions. Learn more about Shawn at Goodthinkinc.com.
MICHELLE GIELAN is an expert on the science of positive communication and how to use it to fuel success and the author of Broadcasting Happiness. Formerly a national news anchor for CBS News, Michelle holds a masters of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Learn more at Goodthinkinc.com.