A new study from the University of Buffalo suggests that people who have faced a certain amount of adversity in their lives may actually have an advantage when it comes to coping later on. Those who had faced moderate adversities in their lives had lower "global distress" levels and were happier than people who had never faced adversity or had experienced high levels of it.
The participants who had had moderate adversity in their lives were also less negatively affected by recent life events than either of the other two groups of participants.
The authors of the study surveyed almost 2,400 people about whether they had experienced any of 37 different adverse life events in their lifetimes. These events included personal illness or injury, a loved one’s illness or injury, violence, grief, social/environmental stress (for example, financial hardship), relationship stress (such as coping with parents’ divorce), and disaster (fire, earthquake, etc.). They were also asked what kinds of adverse events they had experienced in the previous six months, so that the researchers could determine how well they coped at present. Finally, the participants answered questions about their current psychological health and happiness.
People who had experienced moderate lifetime adversities had lower global distress, fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress, more satisfaction with their lives, and lower functional impairment (for example, missing work because of emotional issues) than people who had not experienced adversity or had experienced high levels of adversity. The participants who had had moderate adversity in their lives were also less negatively affected by recent life events than either of the other two groups of participants.
It’s hard to tell how adverse events will affect a person, especially since, as the authors point out, an event that may appear small to the outside observer "may become chronic or more severe if individuals ruminate about it." Therefore, it is difficult to determine how adverse events may "add up" and affect future resilience. Still, it makes sense that dealing with negativity could build one up for future events. The authors suggest that "[e]xperiencing adversity could teach effective coping skills, help engage social support networks, create a sense of mastery over past adversity, foster beliefs in the ability to cope successfully in the future, and generate psychophysiological toughness".
So take heart when bad things happen — they just might make you stronger in the future.
The study was published in the October 11, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.