Where Has Happiness Gone?

Hurricanes, house fires, cancer, white-water rafting accidents, plane crashes, vicious attacks in dark alleyways. Nobody asks for any of it. But to their surprise, many people find that enduring such a harrowing ordeal ultimately changes them for the better. Their refrain might go something like this: "I wish it hadn't happened, but I'm a better person for it."

We love to hear the stories of people who have been transformed by their tribulations, perhaps because they testify to a bona fide psychological truth, one that sometimes gets lost amid endless reports of disaster: There is a built-in human capacity to flourish under the most difficult circumstances. Positive reactions to profoundly disturbing experiences are not limited to the toughest or the bravest. In fact, roughly half the people who struggle with adversity say that their lives have in some ways improved.

This and other promising findings about the life-changing effects of crises are the province of the new science of post-traumatic growth. This fledgling field has already proved the truth of what once passed as bromide: What doesn't kill you can actually make you stronger. Post-traumatic stress is far from the only possible outcome. In the wake of even the most terrifying experiences, only a small proportion of adults become chronically troubled. More commonly, people rebound—or even eventually thrive.

Those who weather adversity well are living proof of one of the paradoxes of happiness: We need more than pleasure to live the best possible life. Our contemporary quest for happiness has shriveled to a hunt for bliss—a life protected from bad feelings, free from pain and confusion.

This anodyne definition of well-being leaves out the better half of the story, the rich, full joy that comes from a meaningful life. It is the dark matter of happiness, the ineffable quality we admire in wise men and women and aspire to cultivate in our own lives. It turns out that some of the people who have suffered the most, who have been forced to contend with shocks they never anticipated and to rethink the meaning of their lives, may have the most to tell us about that profound and intensely fulfilling journey that philosophers used to call the search for "the good life."

This broader definition of good living blends deep satisfaction and a profound connection to others through empathy. It is dominated by happy feelings but seasoned also with nostalgia and regret. "Happiness is only one among many values in human life," contends Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Compassion, wisdom, altruism, insight, creativity—sometimes only the trials of adversity can foster these qualities, because sometimes only drastic situations can force us to take on the painful process of change. To live a full human life, a tranquil, carefree existence is not enough. We also need to grow—and sometimes growing hurts.

In a dark room in Queens, New York, 31-year-old fashion designer Tracy Cyr believed she was dying. A few months before, she had stopped taking the powerful immune-suppressing drugs that kept her arthritis in check. She never anticipated what would happen: a withdrawal reaction that eventually left her in total body agony and neurological meltdown. The slightest movement—trying to swallow, for example—was excruciating. Even the pressure of her cheek on the pillow was almost unbearable.

Cyr is no wimp—diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 2, she'd endured the symptoms and the treatments (drugs, surgery) her whole life. But this time, she was way past her limits, and nothing her doctors did seemed to help. Either the disease was going to kill her or, pretty soon, she'd have to kill herself.

As her sleepless nights wore on, though, her suicidal thoughts began to be interrupted by new feelings of gratitude. She was still in agony, but a new consciousness grew stronger each night: an awesome sense of liberation, combined with an all-encompassing feeling of sympathy and compassion. "I felt stripped of everything I'd ever identified myself with," she said six months later. "Everything I thought I'd known or believed in was useless—time, money, self-image, perceptions. Recognizing that was so freeing."

Within a few months, she began to be able to move more freely, thanks to a cocktail of steroids and other drugs. But as her physical strength came back, she did not return to her old way of being as a feisty, demanding, "Sex-in-the-City, three-inch-stilettos-and-fishnets" girl. Now quieter and more tolerant, she makes a point of being submissive in a turn-the-other-cheek kind of way. Cyr still takes a pharmacopoeia of drugs every day, but she says there's no question that her life is better now. "I felt I had been shown the secret of life and why we're here: to be happy and to nurture other life. It's that simple."

Her mind-blowing experience came as a total surprise. But that feeling of transformation is in some ways typical, says Rich Tedeschi, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte who coined the term "post-traumatic growth." His studies of people who have endured extreme events like combat, violent crime or sudden serious illness show that most feel dazed and anxious in the immediate aftermath. They are preoccupied with the idea that their lives have been shattered. A few are haunted long afterward by memory problems, sleep trouble and similar symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But Tedeschi and others have found that for many people—perhaps even the majority—life ultimately becomes richer and more gratifying.

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