- Humans actually deteriorate without challenges and adversity placed on their bodies and minds.
- People reach their peak levels of fulfillment and development because of—not just in spite of—setbacks, failures and traumas.
- Courageously confronting death helps people live with more meaning and vitality.
Earthquakes, bankruptcies, gut-wrenching heartbreak, pandemics, fender benders ... just as no one gets out of life alive, no one escapes life unscathed by the negative events and emotions—big and small—that are part of the human experience.
Rather counterintuitive in a world that favors comfort, convenience, and sheer and utter pleasure is the idea that humans actually deteriorate without challenges and adversity placed on our bodies and minds (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018). The hedonic pursuit of happiness, characterized by the maximization of positive emotions and the minimization of negative ones (Peterson, 2006) is a well-worn path for most of us: Dial the pleasure up, turn the displeasure switch off. Embracing challenges in our lives may ultimately lead to positivity. If our goal is to lead flourishing lives, an acceptance—a radical welcoming, even—of the negative side of life may help pave the way.
Barbara Fredrickson (2009) nods to appropriate negativity as a key ingredient in lives worth living. She makes an apt distinction between the negative emotions worth entertaining (anger, conflict, and guilt) and the ones worth diminishing (shame, disgust, and contempt). Fredrickson (2009) further asserts that appropriate negativity grounds us in a gravity-filled reality, in a healthy counterbalance to levity-filled positivity which positions us to flourish.
A judicious application of pessimism, contends Marty Seligman (1990), enables us to appreciate reality more accurately—especially valuable in contrast to unwavering moments of optimism that can cause us to distort the reality of a situation.
The adversity hypothesis
Furthering his admonishment for the “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker” ethos in our current society, Jonathan Haidt (2006) introduces the adversity hypothesis, that we reach our peak levels of fulfillment and development because of—not just in spite of—the setbacks, failures, and traumas that the cards of life deal us. A benefit of adversity is that it helps orient us to a more present-filled mindset with clarified priorities (Haidt, 2006). Life goals often change in the aftermath of trauma, when various happiness traps (such as money, choice, and conspicuous consumption) carry less weight (Haidt, 2006). The ways in which we struggle during adverse circumstances can lead to the experience of post-traumatic growth, where we encounter growth and development that surpasses our pre-crisis state (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). The fact that 30-70 percent of individuals who undergo a traumatic event emerge with positive change is a testament to the power of adversity (Linley & Joseph, 2004).
Positive psychology 2.0: The dark side
Chris Peterson (2006) articulately defends positive psychology’s position on the role negativity plays in a well-lived life—that the field of study doesn’t stick its head in the sands of glorious, sunny, happy beaches. His veritable laundry list of what ultimately turns frowns upside down is compelling: Moments of crisis call upon and refine our character strengths, optimism does its best work in the face of failure, the experience of flow is contingent on overcoming challenges to achieve things that matter, and relationships stand the test of time if partners participate in healthy problem-solving.
Indeed, positive psychology in its most holistic definition includes bittersweet moments, suffering, and regrets, and acknowledges that the good life has both bright and dark sides (King, 2001), with meaningful complementarity between both sides (Lomas, 2016). Positive psychology aims for a comprehensive and balanced understanding of the human condition—inclusive of the good days, bad days, and all the days in between—a nuanced grasp of our happiness and our suffering (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Peterson and Seligman (2004) also go so far as to suggest that crisis has a role to play as a crucible for the best parts within us, and academic Paul Bloom (2021) provocatively observes our all-too-human desires to intentionally seek out pain and suffering (like training for marathons or by joining the army), in paradoxical attempts to make meaning in our lives.
The meaning and motivation behind memento mori
So how, more specifically, can positive psychology help us leverage death to help bring us back to full life, before we’re six feet underground? The field of positive psychology is uniquely poised to explore—with the heft of all its theory and practice—this traditionally taboo topic. It appears that the well-lived life is reached in part because of the poignant contrast that exists between the highs and the lows—the troubles, setbacks, and even traumas that life presents. We don’t need to experience the depths of despair to gain access to well-being, but adopting the perspective that adversity is required for a full, rich life of meaning, can motivate us to reflect on death in a way that lets us tune into the upside of the dark side. The practice of memento mori (remembering we must die) is about more than “fixing” our death-related anxieties and grieving with slightly less sorrow. We’re pushing beyond a few comfortable boundaries to give the promise of death permission to catapult us into something so much better.
An existential paradox is born from our awareness of mortality; we simultaneously want to play it safe and avoid risks while reaching out and experiencing more that life has to offer (Reivich & Shatte, 2003). We’re reigned in yet also motivated to want more. Positive psychology with an existential twist encourages us to courageously confront death to live with more meaning and vitality (Wong, 2010)—to not accept an absence of distress or an “it’s fine” relationship to our lives, but to work for the greater cause of living both wider with vitality and deeper with meaning.
Bloom, P. (2021). The sweet spot: the pleasures of suffering and the search for meaning. First edition. New York, NY, Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York, NY: Crown.
Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis. New York: Basic Books.
King, L.A. (2001). The hard road to the good life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41(1), 51–72. doi:10.1177/0022167801411005
Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004). Positive change following trauma and adversity: A review. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17, 11-21. doi: 10.1023/B:JOTS.0000014671.27856.7e
Lomas, T. (2016). Positive psychology – the second wave. The Psychologist, 29, 536-539.
Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. New York: Penguin Press.
Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues. New York, NY: Oxford University Press and Washington: American Psychological Association Press.
Reivich, K., & Shatte, A. (2003). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned optimism. New York: Pocket Books.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410–421. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410
Tedeschi, R. G. & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1-18. doi: 10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01
Wong, P.T.P. (2010, July). What is existential positive psychology? International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 3(1).