Surviving—and Even Thriving—Through Tragedy

Research shows that positive emotions lead to resilience.

Posted Apr 29, 2016

Brandyalexzander (CC0 Public Domain)
Source: Brandyalexzander (CC0 Public Domain)

Life deals everyone a series of ups and downs. It follows that each of us will have to weather a tragedy at some point — the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, a natural disaster or a terrorist attack are among some possibilities that come to mind.

You've probably noticed in your own life that some people experience difficult times and seem to bounce back or even grow emotionally stronger, while other people are devastated by traumatic events. A growing body of evidence explains why.

Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development at Cornell University's College of Human Ecology, is among the leading researchers in this field.  His work focuses on the complex interplay of social, emotional, cognitive, and cultural resources that people draw upon to adapt to stressful life circumstances as they age, and the ways these factors have an effect on health and well-being.

Ong's research has demonstrated that cultivating positive emotions on a daily basis helps people cope more effectively with daily stressors and even major tragedies, such as the death of a spouse. “The phenomenon of positive emotions during bereavement, once considered rare or an hindrance to grieving, is now recognized as a sign of genuine adjustment,” he explained.

He has also finds that daily positive emotions can help older adults better cope with chronic pain, and improve their health outcomes. This work has raised the possibility that positive emotions are important factors in undoing the autonomic arousal generated by negative emotions.

The broader body of research backs up Ong's findings. A systematic review of 52 studies published in 2011 found that qualities such as high self-esteem, optimism, hope, self-empowerment, acceptance  and determination helped people to maintain or regain their mental health during difficult times, such as a serious physical illness. Another review published in 2008 found that positive psychological well-being — including feelings of joy and happiness, and traits such as optimism and a sense of humor — reduce the chances of death among health populations and the seriously ill.

Essentially, researchers believe that daily access to positive emotions creates a psychological antidote for people in times of crisis. The ability to experience a positive emotion despite a major stressor provides a momentary respite from the ongoing stress.

A steady stream of positive emotions also leads to greater emotional and physical well-being. By undoing the effects of everyday stress and fueling psychological resilience, positive emotions can trigger an upward spiral of well-being.

Ong’s work has also shown that social connectedness – having a supportive relationships with those around you – contributes to daily positive emotions, and also leads people to be more resilient in the face of adversity.

“Although a number of important questions concerning the significance of positive emotions remain, the broad outlines of an integrative research agenda are beginning to come into view,” Ong said. “At the core of this agenda is the recognition that traveling through the dark groundwater of human loss and suffering, often lurking unseen from above, are vast fissures and caverns of positive emotions that from time to time emerge from below the surface to create a wellspring of human resilience.”

Based on findings from dozens of studies, Ong offers some practical advice for fostering positive emotions in everyday living:

  • Find meaning in everyday life through reframing adverse events in a positive light, infusing ordinary events with positive value, and pursuing and attaining realistic goals.
  • Explore relaxation techniques that create conditions conducive to experiencing contentment and inner calmness.
  • Make connections by reaching out to others.
  • Engage in activities that you enjoy and find intrinsically motivating.
  • Take care of yourself by eating right, getting enough sleep and engaging in regular physical activity.