How Hardship Can Help Us Grow Toward Joy

Sometimes the challenges we face can help nudge us to make much-needed changes. Psychologist and behavioral scientist Mike Rucker offers tips for recognizing opportunities to nurture joy.

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It’s hard to think about happiness when life delivers us with something undesirable. Emerging research on the science of emotion suggests that when we chase happiness during these moments—where happiness is not an appropriate response—it can even add to our stress and culminate longer periods of despair. 

If chasing happiness during times of hardship is this precarious, how can hardship have a relationship with joy?

Begin with Presence

When we allow ourselves to sit with our emotions as they arise, we sometimes realize feelings like fear, grief, or anger are necessary, and even useful. These emotions can create space for personal appraisal, which in turn opens the door for new insights to emerge. 

Sometimes all it takes is one event to illuminate the pathway towards what we inherently need.

Trauma is a powerful force that’s often accompanied by strong feelings and the need to grieve or recover, and giving yourself the time to do so is essential. Then, when we feel like we’ve adequately processed what happened in whichever way you find best supports your recovery, possibly with the help of a professional, these same emotions can be the catalyst for change by providing us the motivation to recalibrate. Our discomfort can act as a guide. Sometimes all it takes is one event to illuminate the pathway towards what we inherently need. It could be the realization that a shift of priorities would better support our well-being, or that an area of life needs realignment. 

Recognize What You Need and Follow Through

People typically speak negatively about escapism, but intentionally architecting departure from hardship can give you a potent force to escape to something better. By this, I don’t mean that we ignore or run away from what’s difficult. Hardship can provide fertile ground for us to radically shift our perspective—to do what we can to shape a reality that supports us in ways that were previously absent. This begins with recognizing what serves us well (and what doesn’t) so we can prioritize more effectively. 

Be Flexible

Challenging experiences can also help us develop more wisdom and increase our capacity for empathy, expanding our emotional intelligence and leading to what science calls emotional flexibility—greater resilience and improved regulation of emotions. 

Hardship also creates a richer understanding of our emotions’ ephemeral nature. As the unpleasantness naturally dissipates, we can notice that hardship, but also pleasant experiences, are fleeting. With this awareness, we can get better at valuing our time and organizing our lives with more intentionality. These rough patches present the opportunity to grow an appreciation for what is good in our lives—and in time to savor what remains and what we will be able to create in the future.

Ideas for Growth

There’s no discrete blueprint for overcoming hardship. Different forms of hardship come with their own unique degrees of misfortune and trauma, and these will need to be processed by you in a way that is specific to supporting your recovery. Unfortunately, a one size fits all approach doesn’t exist, and as such, that is not what’s being advocated for here. However, there are a few strategies to emerging from hardship in a way that can support your subjective well-being.

  • Rather than resisting challenges, accept that obstacles (even the unfair ones) happen to all of us. Allow yourself the time you need to feel the natural emotions that are sure to arise, like grief, anger, or sadness. When the time feels right, you can devise a proactive plan that supports your recovery.
  • Convey gratitude to those who assist you in recovery and use the journey to savor and strengthen your friendships. When the time is right, reciprocate the kindness in ways that fit your relationships. Friendships are one of life’s greatest pleasures, but the bond of friendship is often strengthened during tough times. Celebrate both. 
  • Double down on daily gratitude practice. When things are good for a long time, we can sometimes begin to take our circumstances for granted, growing resistant to truly enjoying common pleasures. Cultivating a habit of gratitude can help us notice life’s joys, big and small. 
  • If you recognize that hardship arose from a habit or pattern that has now revealed itself to you as harmful, you can take action to change or replace the behavior with something that moves you toward happiness instead of away from it. This is often easier said than done, but is always worth it.

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