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Adversity and Happiness

Anne and I just finished reading The Happiness Hypothesis. In Hypothesis, Haidt devotes an entire chapter to adversity. I feel it is only fitting to write my first post about this chapter since earlier this week marked the anniversary of my father’s death. He states that this chapter is about what we might call the “adversity hypothesis,” which says that people need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development” (136). Haidt also describes the classes of benefits that arise from surviving adversity: it reveals your hidden abilities which changes your self-concept and  adversity is a relationship filter. Adversity also makes you more open to new things and experiences. Adversity probably has the greatest effect in the late teens and early twenties.

I tend to agree with his adversity hypothesis (especially because he later qualifies that children do need a safe and controllable environment). In no small part due to my father’s death, my environment as a child was far from controllable and I do think that this early trauma has made me a more anxious adult. Even with this unfortunate outcome, I still agree with Haidt that I did receive some benefits from my early adversity. I was able to witness my mother’s transformation to an amazing strong single parent. I got to spend more time with my father’s parents and sister (these memories are now some of the best of my childhood). As a young adult, this experience has also made me stronger when dealing with death. I am more accepting and better able to cope with my grief.

This is obviously not a situation I would wish on any one else. But it is nice to reflect on the ways this experience has made me stronger as opposed to dwelling on the glaring negatives of losing a parent so young. My father’s death shaped who I am today (for better or for worse). The Proust quote that Haidt used on page 152 definitely resonates with me:

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.”

Did my father’s death make me happier? No. Has it made me think critically about what the most valuable things in life are? Yes and this insight has in turn made me a happier person.

(Anne chiming in here:) I appreciated reading Haidt’s book; I’ve long admired, and taught, his wonderful essay on “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” so was looking forward to a more extended treatment of the role that the unconscious plays in our decision making. That meant that I was a little surprised @ Haidt’s locating happiness “inbetween,” as a balance of internal and external forces, but that position makes sense to me, and — as someone who is insistently “attached,” and finds much comfort and satisfaction and growth from those connections — I especially appreciated his cautions about the Buddhist injunction to give up up attachment, the strong statement that “nonattachment is an affront to human nature.”

Other insights I appreciated had to do w/ the “paradox of abundance” (the more choices we have, the unhappier we are); the concept of “negativity bias” (bad feedback always bothers us more than good–a perennial problem w/ student evaluations!); the idea of “ambient safety” (feeling safe enough to go exploring); the celebration of extroversion (being an extrovert m’self); the ideas that Alex discusses above about postraumatic growth; accordingly, the dangers of overprotecting our children (and so denying them that growth that can come from encountering adversity). I was also amused by the project Haidt sets the students in his positive psychology class @ UVA — to use what they’ve learned “to make themselves better people” — and prove it! That’s praxis w/ a vengeance, and the inspiration for the commitment Alex and I have made here, to use this shared reading course to make ourselves happier by semester’s end.

All that said, there’s something in me that resists the packaging of this book: it’s chirpy, relentless organizing and coherency (see the summary of the Slippery Brain Soldality’s discussion: it’s just a little too “tidy”). Which probably has something to do w/ where I find happiness: in critique. How paradoxical is that??

Posted in Alexandra Funk, Anne Dalke.

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3 Responses

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  1. jrlewis says

    “something to do w/ where I find happiness: in critique”

    How curious! Do you find happiness in giving or receiving criticism? Why do I ask? I’m imagining that one of the differences between writing for oneself and a larger audience, is in receiving criticism. Criticism from editors and readers alike at least intimidates and at worst destroys me. Reasonable comments by a kind friend can lead to hours crying over my computer. There is a particular flavor I depression I experience after submitting a less than perfect piece for criticism and having it returned without insightful comments. It is a despair of improvement, of potential, of possibility. Conversely, the best criticism generates new directions for the piece to travel, a bridge over a river and into a new intellectual place. This is the source of pleasure in the relationship between reader and writer…

  2. Alexandra Funk says

    This is a VERY interesting question. Anne and I actually just had a conversation about this. I have been feeling that my contributions to this blog have been lack-luster because of my obsessive need for things to be “perfect” before I let outsiders read them…needless to say, the only outsiders who have ever really read my writing (with a few exceptions…until this blog!) are the educators that have passed through my life.

    Like you I despair when I have someone read something and give no response (whether good or bad). Some criticism has definitely led to an increase in happiness, mostly this occurs down the line when I can see the improvement I have made and get positive feedback because of the change.

    This is something I think I need to mull over. Thanks for the insightful question!

  3. jrlewis says

    “Like most writers who are intelligent, Ryszard had long since accustomed himself to being actually two people. One was a warmhearted, anxious man, rather boyish for his twenty-five years, while the other one …in the other one, detached, reckless, manipulative, flourished the temperament of someone much older. The first self forever being surprised by the evidence of his own intelligence; it never ceased to astonish him, when words, eloquence, ideas, observations just came, like birds flying out of his mouth. The second was condemned to finding nobody clever enough-and everything he saw a challenge to his skills as an observer and describer, because so blindingly, thickly steeped in itself (“the world” is not a writer).”

    -Susan Sontag “In America”