Leaning into Stressful Situations for a Happy Outcome

Research suggests that working through stressful situations offers the promise of fulfillment and happiness in the future.

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Posted in , Feb 16, 2018

Facing stress and finding happiness

I’ve never been a fan of the phrase, “No pain, no gain.” I much prefer the alternative version, “No pain….no pain!” When it comes to exercise, for example, I learned years ago that pushing through pain was more likely to lay me up with a thrown-out back than it was to leave me feeling strong and healthy.

But there are times when leaning into stressful situations actually does lead to greater happiness. A new study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies  found that people who pursue goals that are tough to achieve feel more stress in the moment, but greater happiness in the aftermath—particularly if they feel connected to others along the way.

The researchers concluded that happiness increases when people develop greater competency at something—and greater competency only comes when people persevere through the stress-inducing phase of trying, wrestling with, and trying again to learn and grow. If the psychological needs to be autonomous or self-directed, and to be connected to others are met, the momentary stresses feel less acute, and the resulting happiness is more lasting. 

This idea reminds me of another oft-quoted phrase, which I’ve heard in reference to writing, exercise and other challenging tasks—“Fill-in-the-blank-stressful-task is the worst thing to do, but the greatest thing to have done.” In other words, navigating the stress of a story that isn’t coming together, an exercise class that leaves us feeling vulnerable and sweat-drenched or a high-stakes work presentation, shouldn’t lead us to walk away from writing, exercising or going for a work promotion. 

And if we can pass those stressful moments with a friend, colleague or family member who’s trustworthy and supportive, all the better.

As I travel my positive path, I’m certainly not seeking out stress. But life will offer me plenty of it, whether I ask for it or not. My task is to choose wisely when and how to face it head-on, knowing that happiness awaits on the other side.

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