When we think about what makes for a happy, healthy life, we usually tend to focus on circumstances. For example, research shows that people who have marital and financial stability tend to be happier than those who don’t. People who’ve had happy, well-adjusted childhoods tend to be happier and healthier than those who didn’t. People who had the opportunity to pursue higher education tend to be happier and healthier than those who didn’t, and so on.
But a recent study from Harvard University is shaking up the understanding of what really contributes to quality of life. The Landmark Study of Adult Development tracked the lives of three disparate groups of people — socially advantaged Harvard graduates, socially disadvantaged inner city men, and intellectually gifted middle-class women — over six to eight decades of their lives. What they found is that circumstances do indeed contribute to — or diminish — human health and happiness … at least to an extent. But as Business Insider reported, the way we respond to those circumstances can mitigate their effects — both positive and negative:
Blaming others, being passive-aggressive, living in denial, acting out and retreating into fantasy were all maladaptive coping mechanisms associated with poor outcomes. These behaviors soothed bad feelings in the short term and wreaked havoc in the long term by ruining relationships and producing lousy life decisions. Those who thrived chose more mature methods of coping like altruism, sublimation, suppression, and humor. But those who truly thrived took it to whole ‘nother level … the best way to selfishly improve your life is to be unselfish and focus on helping those around you.
We can’t control what happens to us in our childhood, and we can’t always control what happens to us as adults. Sometimes a marriage that seems stable crumbles under our feet, or a rock-solid job vanishes overnight, leaving us bewildered and scrambling … for answers and for solutions.
But the one thing we can control is how we respond. I tell my kids this all the time and it usually sends them into paroxysms of despair. They see it almost as a double whammy — not only are they having to suffer an injustice, but they’re also expected to respond to it with patience and grace?!
(This could be footage of my 12-year-old.)
But the thing is, controlling our response is not just another unpleasant part of life — it’s an opportunity. The ability to transform our suffering by virtue of our response is one of humanity’s greatest gifts, and it’s one of the main predictors of how long we will live, and how happy that life will be.
When we choose to respond to injustice with resilience, patience, and humor, we are choosing not to let ourselves be defeated by our circumstances. And when we resolve to turn that negative experience into a positive by using what we’ve suffered to help others live a better life, we are choosing to rise above those circumstances and literally change someone else’s life for the better.
That’s the most significant marker the landmark study found for those who lived the longest, most joyful lives — they didn’t necessarily have the best childhoods, the most money, or the highest education. But they took what they did have and found a way to transform it into a gift for others.
In the end, the best way to ensure to that your life is healthy and happy is to live it virtuously, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you … no matter what.
A beginner’s guide to getting to know yourself more deeply, by St. Teresa of Avila