Emotional Resilience

”There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die, that we may appreciate the enjoyments of life.” — Alexandre Dumas

If there is one thing to learn from volunteering at a crisis helpline, it is that emotional resilience is both perhaps the most useful thing to learn in life, and something no one teaches in school. People are just supposed to figure out for themselves that being able to healthily cope with setbacks and unfortunate events is one of the most important things to learn. A lack of emotional resilience leads to unhappiness, an inability to deal with what happens, and ultimately to mental illness. To give you an example of the difference that emotional resilience makes:

Take person A, who does not have it. On any given day, if he makes a big mistake at work or fails a test at school, he will first try to blame others or the system; it happened because of something outside of his control and he is the victim of external circumstances. “Everything is going badly,” he says, “why does this always happen to me?” He instantly feels like giving up on whatever it was he was doing at school or at work, and feels awful about what happened, but cannot explain or understand what he is feeling.

He is unable to laugh about it or see the positive side of what happened, and will not (or cannot) take any steps to resolve or improve what happened. He did not learn from it, nor will he share his difficulties with friends and family to gain much-needed social support. He decides to cope with his feelings by withdrawing from social life, eating and drinking more than he should, binge-watching TV shows, and not letting himself feel any uncomfortable emotions. The result is that he does not grow from the experience, and may actually experience mental health issues after multiple events like this.

The more serious the setback or negative life event, the more serious the consequences become. To others, a person may seem to live a great life and have it together, but if anything remotely bad happens to them, the lack of emotional resilience may simply cause them to become severely mentally ill.

Now take person B, who has learned emotional resilience. When she makes a mistake at work or fails a test at school, she pauses for a moment and thinks about what happened. She does not instinctively react negatively to the situation but instead figures out what caused it to happen and how she can prevent it from happening in the future.

Then she starts acting on this right away. She trusts the process and isn’t afraid of discomfort in order to set things right. She does not blame others, nor does she pity herself. She copes with it by talking about what happened with friends and family, manages to see the positive and laughs about it if it’s not too severe of a life event. She believes that she can learn from what happened and that the solution to her problem lies within her control.

As a result, the situation becomes more manageable and the emotions are dealt with in a healthy way. Not by overthinking, not by seeking endless distraction, but by figuring out a proper solution, growing from the experience, and leaving it at that. Easier said than done, of course.

One of the biggest differences between person A and person B is their willingness to let themselves feel negative emotions. Somewhere along the way of history, people decided that happiness wasn’t simply pursuing prosperity and the well-being of the people, but that it was removing any kind of physical and mental suffering. To a certain extent, this is good.

If someone used to have to farm the land with manual tools and can now use a tractor to do the same much quicker and without back-breaking labour, all the better. In recent history, however, feeling any negative emotions has been considered bad in most cases. People think that living is about being comfortable all the time. Instead of letting themselves feel negative emotions, they distract themselves with whatever is available.

And boy, do companies capitalize on this basic feature of human nature. Comfort entertainment is everywhere and in all sorts and shapes and sizes available. TV-shows, social media, candy, and so on. It seems fine to seek distraction at first, but whatever emotion is suppressed now comes back later, amplified. Seeking comfort in the short-term may feel like living a good life, but in the long-term, it’s actually antithetical to being happy.

Once the habit of comfort-seeking is set, however, it now takes a lot more effort to simply do something else whenever the trigger (the negative emotion) arises. Breaking the cycle often means first becoming aware that there is a cycle in the first place, and realising that this cycle is detrimental to mental health and happiness. Add to this that the society people live in often does not have their health and happiness in the highest regard, and the habit becomes extra difficult to change.

Ultimately, it takes finding the difference between necessary and unnecessary suffering to grow as a person, and knowing that some amount of negative emotions—now and then, and when dealt with in a healthy way—are as important to happiness as positive emotions are.