5 Essential Life Truths That Sound Depressing but Aren't
There's no such thing as a happy ending.
Posted March 14, 2018
Lately, I've been reflecting on what I’ve learned and how my worldview has changed as a result of my years of treating patients and my knowledge of psychological research. I’ve learned a lot about the nature of life and dealing with stress, and what helps and what doesn’t. I'd like to share some of my acquired wisdom with you here. As you go along, you will realize that life doesn’t always give you what you expect, and that what you think is true sometimes isn’t. The secret isn’t to resist these essential truths, but to learn and adapt, so you can live a fulfilling, healthy, and successful life despite the inevitable stressors and downturns.
1. Stress happens.
Stress is a natural part of life, and there’s no getting away from it. Whether it’s day-to-day stresses, like traffic and bills, or major life changes and upheavals, we all get our share of stress. There is no point in trying to be stress-free, rather strive to be stress-proof. What that means is that you learn how to manage stress so it doesn’t derail you or permanently block you from your goals. Research shows that having a growth mindset towards stress in which you see it as having a potential upside actually makes you a more active coper and helps you persist when things get difficult. That doesn’t mean you wanted the stressor to happen, but rather that you try to make the best of the situation when it does. Research by Kobasa and Maddi shows that people who are higher in a personal quality called hardiness are able to survive even major stressors, like the complete restructuring of your company, without experiencing depression or deteriorating health. Hardiness involves commitment, control, and challenge. Commitment means showing up and actively engaging, rather than avoiding. Control means perceiving some sense of control, even if things get difficult — perhaps exerting some control over your own reactions or perceptions. Challenge means viewing the situation as a challenge to master, rather than an overwhelming threat.
Take-Home Message: Try to find ways to view your stressors as manageable challenges, show up and contribute, control what you can, and let go of what you can’t.
2. There’s no such thing as a happy ending.
We grow up with fairy tales in which the hero slays the dragon, rescues the beautiful princess, and the hero and princess fall in love, gain in wealth, and live happily ever after. In real life, things aren’t so simple. We cannot actually attain a state in which we are guaranteed to be completely safe and to never experience any unhappiness, stress, or adversity. Even if we attain most of our life goals, we will inevitably face our aging and our parents', our children leaving home, health issues, and shifts in society and the economy. Even if you’re in a long, happy relationship, you will have times when you or your partner change or face challenges and develop new needs that require a shift to adapt. Mindfulness is an attitude toward living, learned through meditation and other practices, in which you learn to let go of clinging to positive experiences and moods and dreading negative ones. You learn to let go of attachment to things being a certain way, and you become more flexible and willing to adapt to what is, rather than trying to force things to be static and unchanging. With mindfulness, you can develop an inner peace and acceptance that makes you more content with whatever life gives you. Research by Richard Davidson and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin shows that the regular practice of mindfulness leads to more activity in the areas of the right side of the brain associated with positive emotions. Which is its own kind of happy ending!
Take-Home Message: Accept the inevitability of change and uncertainty in life. Stop thinking that the world needs to be a certain way (e.g., fair or kind) in order for you to be happy. Learn to go with the flow.
3. The cover-up is worse than the crime.
When it comes to emotions, the cover-up is worse than the crime. In other words, the things we do to suppress and not feel difficult emotions create greater difficulties for us in the long run than if we actually learned to tolerate the emotions. According to Stephen Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, experiential avoidance — the desire to not feel uncomfortable mental states (e.g., thoughts and feelings) is the source of many mental health problems, such as anxiety and addiction. That’s because it doesn’t work to just shove down negative thoughts and emotions — they pop up again. As researcher Daniel Wegner showed in a classic study, trying not to think of a white bear makes you more likely to think of white bears. You also may act in unhealthy ways in order not to feel difficult emotions — you may smoke, drink too much, eat unhealthy food, smoke too much marijuana, or zone out in front of the television for hours. All of these will negatively impact your health, mood, and/or ability to reach your life goals. Instead, you need to develop a “willingness to be uncomfortable” in order to move forward towards your goals. When you actually face what you fear, especially if you do this on a regular basis, your anxiety goes down, because you habituate, or get used to the situation. An example of habituation is if you live near the airport and, after a while, start automatically tuning out the plane sounds. The sounds are just as loud, but your brain and body can adapt.
Take-Home Message: Think about what role avoidance plays in your life and how it holds you back, and then think about how your life might change for the better by actually taking risks and putting yourself out there.
4. There’s no magic bullet.
For centuries, snake-oil salesmen, cult leaders, self-help authors, and other types of influencers have tried to tell us that they have the secret formula that will cure all of our emotional ills, help us overcome all of life’s roadblocks, and live eternally happy, successful lives. While some advice can be helpful, especially if it’s research-based, fresh, and simple to implement, there is no one answer that fits everybody. There are some universals, like it helps to be healthier, socially connected, and to manage your anxiety, but beyond this, one size doesn’t fit all. What works for your friend may not work for you, because you don’t have the personality to pull it off, it doesn’t feel authentic, your lifestyle doesn’t fit it, or you can’t tolerate the stress of executing the strategy. Research shows that most things in life are person X situation interactions. In other words, strategies that work in controllable situations (like taking an exam or trying to succeed at work) may not work in uncontrollable situations (like facing terminal cancer or trying to make a narcissist change). Trusting your gut might work best in some situations, while using your head might work better in others. According to psychiatrist and neuroscientist Daniel Segal, the author of Mindsight, the essence of mental health is flexibility and integration. In other words, you use different coping strategies mindfully, finding the one that best fits the specific situation, and you find answers by integrating information from your head and your heart.
Take-Home Message: Find your own solutions, and adapt strategies to suit your lifestyle and personality. Don’t compare yourself to others, and don’t look to others to solve your problems. While it’s good to reach out, you’re the only one who can take it to the finish line.
5. There’s no elevator; you have to take the stairs.
Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset and Angela Duckworth’s research on grit shows that you are much more likely to succeed if you put in sustained effort over long periods. Research on mindfulness shows that mindfulness-based interventions can change the brain to be more self-regulating, positive, and connected, but this result occurred after participants meditated for five days a week for at least eight weeks. Although neuroplasticity exists, and the adult brain is capable of changing, this change is generally the result of sustaining new habits consistently over periods of months or years. Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book Outliers: The Story of Success that in the area of musical proficiency, success is the result of tens of thousands of hours of practice. Gladwell describes a study by psychologist Anders Ericsson and colleagues at Berlin’s Academy of Music that compared amateur and professional pianists. While the amateurs practiced for about 2,000 hours on average over the course of their career, the professional pianists had practiced for 10,000 hours on average — five times as much. So when it comes to musical proficiency and some other areas, it’s not about being a natural talent — It’s about working much longer and harder than your competitors.
Take-Home Message: To be successful requires a huge amount of hard work and perseverance; talent and potential alone are not enough.