In this fourth post on Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness, I’ll discuss strategies for coping with life’s inevitable downturns. According to Lyubomirsky, half of all adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime – e.g., death, terminal or chronic illness, major surgery, job loss, natural disaster. We’ll also know the pain of navigating the end-of-life for parents and grandparents, break-ups, friendships gone sour, work and family stress, and other disappointments. We need to find our way out of hurt, sadness, depression, confusion, and/or fear such that the disruption’s impact does not become a permanent state of despair.
Develop coping strategies. Lyubomirsky says our response to a negative event or situation can be problem-focused (seeking resolution), emotion-focused (managing reaction), or some combination of the two. A problem-focused approach may look at options, identify pro/cons, assess costs/benefits, and develop criteria for decision-making. It relieves stress by providing a means to reassert control and take action. An emotion-focused approach provides comfort or relief in the moment and helps move toward a state of acceptance and equilibrium. Representative tactics include:
- Engaging in a pleasant distraction to give the heart and soul a measure of respite – e.g., go hiking, walk on the beach at sunset, take in a movie
- Seeking support from close friends with whom you can share your feelings unreservedly and know that you do not face your suffering alone
- Using expressive writing to create a coherent narrative that helps you understand, come to terms with, and accept the current circumstances
- Finding a means to reinterpret the current situation such that you focus on the “silver lining,” the lessons learned, the perspective gained, or the opportunity for personal growth
The situation may yet be a source of profound grief or distress. It may take time to work it through and reclaim your peace of mind. Yet in its midst lies the possibility of acknowledging the fragility of life and reorienting priorities to align with what matters most. You may come out the other side with greater self-confidence, stronger relationships, more compassion for others, and a deeper sense of meaning for your life.
Learn to forgive. With the world’s great faith traditions routinely instruct their followers to practice forgiveness, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. When we’ve been wronged, hurt, or attacked, the last thing most of us want to do is “turn the other cheek.” More likely, we’ll feel angry, uncharitable, and even vengeful. Yet this preoccupation, hostility, and resentment hurts us emotionally and physically. It can make us hateful, self-righteous, anxious, neurotic, and depressed.
Forgiveness doesn’t negate the wrong that has been committed or deny reparation. It doesn’t confer a pardon nor make excuses. It doesn’t force reconciliation. Rather, it’s a shift in feelings and attitude toward the offender that allows for a release of negative emotions. It’s something we do for ourselves. Studies show that when we routinely practice forgiveness, we’re healthier, happier, more agreeable, more compassionate, and serene. We make room for the possibility of reestablishing relationship. We feel better about ourselves.
Lyubomirsky serves up several exercises to help us flex our forgiveness muscles:
- Recognize that you need forgiveness as much as you need to forgive. Take stock of ways in which you’ve harmed others and ask their forgiveness.
- Walk a mile in the perpetrator’s shoes. Try to see what led to the offending behavior. Be empathetic.
- Write a letter of forgiveness. Describe the injury and its impact in detail. Express what you wish had been done differently. Then offer forgiveness. (Note: The letter does not need to be sent.)
- Think charitable thoughts about the person who hurt you; focus on their positive attributes.
- Ruminate less.