In his book Algebra of Happiness, Scott Galloway notes that “nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems” and sets this notion out as the formula above. While not an absolute rule, there’s wisdom in his view.
Raj Raghunathan, a happiness researcher at the University of Texas, agrees. In his book If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy, he discusses an exercise he asks volunteers (and his readers) to undertake:
Think of a relatively intense negative event, such as a breakup with a “soul mate” or being slammed with a DWI (driving while intoxicated) charge, that happened to you a while—say, two or more years—back. Then, open your laptop and type up what happened in some detail. (Or, if you are old-fashioned, take out a notepad and write about it.) Done?
Now, using a seven-point scale, where 1 = “not at all” and 7 = “intensely,” come up with a number in response to each of the following two questions:
1. How negative did you feel at the time that the event occurred?
2. How negative do you now feel about the event?
Once you have come up with these responses, answer one more question: How meaningful do you now consider the negative event to be? That is, do you feel that you have learned something useful from it—lessons that you wouldn’t have learned had the event not occurred? That is, did the event help you grow and evolve in any meaningful way? Answer this question using a seven-point scale, where 1 = “not at all meaningful,” and 7 = “extremely meaningful.”
If you’re like most people, what you’ll find when contemplating an intense negative event is that you feel far less negative about the event now than when it occurred.
Here’s Prof. Raghunathan’s research summarized in a chart:
Maybe the findings summarized in the chart are not a surprise — time heals wounds, right? And that the joy of a good event would fade also makes sense.
But what about the second part of his question? What about meaningfulness? Prof. Raghunathan’s research has a surprising finding: “people find past negative events to be significantly more meaningful than they do past positive events.” Wow.
The reason for this is “that negative events provide far greater opportunity for growth and learning than do the positive ones.” Counterintuitively, “this means that the very events that you currently consider to be the most negative will likely be the ones that you later come to cherish.”
So, breakups, health issues, job losses, financial difficulties, and even deaths can be events that we later appreciate. Bad experiences can change our lives for the better.
When I did this exercise, the intense negative event from my distant past that popped into my head was my horrendous freshman year of college.
My Horrible Yet Meaningful College Failure
I went to TCU my freshman year of college. I was in the honors college and enrolled in extremely challenging courses my first semester. I also pledged a fraternity (Fiji). This combination of a vigorous social life, difficult classes, as well as a big dose of immaturity combined with disastrous results: in my first semester I made a 1.8 GPA and then a slightly better 2.4 GPA the next. This resulted in my academic scholarship being yanked. Not a good freshman year academically!
Having lost my scholarship, that summer my parents calmly explained that I would get one more chance at college with their financial support, but at a cheaper college.
At the time, crashing and burning academically was horrible. I was embarrassed and disappointed in myself and lost a lot of confidence in my abilities. The options for my future seemingly shrank. I ended up transferring to the University of Missouri, where I buckled down, went to class, put in the work, got my act together, made better grades, and then went on to law school.
Looking back, however, that failure was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. That failure:
- Led to me meeting my wife (the love of my life and best friend) at Mizzou.
- To paraphrase a passage in Catcher in the Rye, it allowed me to find the limits of my intellect.
- It shaped my worldview. From that point forward I saw success less as due to innate qualities but rather due to doing the work. I learned that I could learn and grow and succeed if I was willing to put in the work.
- In a strange sense, it gave me the confidence to leave my comfort zone, try new things, and risk failure. When you’ve failed big and survived you aren’t as afraid of failure in the future. I’ve worked with many smart, talented people who have been afraid to fail and leave their comfort zones because they’ve never failed at anything.
- It has positively affected my parenting as throughout my daughter’s lives I’ve stressed the importance of effort and working hard. If they make a good grade, I praise the work that went into that grade, not their smarts.
- etc. etc. etc.
We should keep in mind Scott Galloway’s admonishment that “nothing is ever as bad or good as it seems.” Plus, realize our negative experiences teach us the most and end up most meaningful. Remembering that will help us get through tough times.